At least ten members of the Great Andamanese tribe that reside in the Andamans archipelago have tested positive for COVID-19. With just over 50 survivors, news of coronavirus reaching the already dwindling population of the Great Andamanese has elicited widespread concern regarding the health and future of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs).

“This news of Covid-19 reaching our protected tribal communities in Andaman and Nicobar, is our worst nightmare come true,” Lt. General Bhopinder Singh, former Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, told The Citizen.

Six members of the tribe, who had travelled to the capital Port Blair for work, recently tested positive, AFP reported. According to the report, a team of healthcare officials travelled to the small Strait Island inhabited by the tribe, to conduct tests. The results revealed that four members of the tribe who had never left the island had contracted the virus as well.

Dr. Avijit Roy, Health Department Deputy Director and Nodal Officer told AFP that the team had tested 37 samples and four members of the Great Andamanese were found to be positive. “They are admitted in hospital,” Roy said.

However, an official working in tribal welfare told The Citizen that of the 37 tests conducted, 11 members of the Great Andamanese had tested positive, all in the capital itself. While the AFP report states that six have recovered and are currently in home quarantine, with the remaining four admitted in hospital, the official claimed that out of the 11, three have recovered while eight cases are active. Recent communication from the UT administration states that of the eight, two are in home quarantine, while six remain in hospital.

The official alleged that no team of health officials had travelled to Strait Island to conduct tests, as it would be a further risk to the tribe members if an asymptomatic individual came in contact with them.

Instead, all those who have tested positive from the tribe are located in Port Blair, stated the official. “The rest of them, we test them before shifting them to Strait Island. Those negative… we have already asked them to leave their government job for the next four-five months, until COVID normalises. So we have shifted them,” the official told The Citizen.

“Department of tribal welfare of the island administration should look beyond mere provisioning and protection. Administrators and senior staff are very restricted in their outlook,” Vishvajit Pandya, anthropologist and Director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute told The Citizen.

“Vulnerability is not just COVID among Great Andamanese. Various forms of threat and loss of culture is a 365 day issue,” stated Pandya, who has been working in the region since 1983.

The population of the Great Andamanese has dwindled considerably. Once numbering around 5000 when the British colonised the islands in the 19th century, hundreds were killed as they resisted the colonisers and defended their territories. According to Survival International, a global campaign movement for tribal rights, thousands more perished in various bouts of epidemic diseases such as measles, influenza and syphilis, all introduced through contact with the British.

In a move to ‘civilise’ them, the British kept captured members of the tribe in an ‘Andaman Home’. However, hundreds died from disease and abuse, with Survival International claiming that of the 150 children born in the home, none survived beyond the age of two.

The remaining members of the tribe were moved to Strait Island by Indian authorities in the late 1900s. Authorities today provide them with food, shelter and clothing. However, tuberculosis and alcoholism are widely prevalent among the Great Andamanese, making them increasingly susceptible to COVID-19.

Today, only over 50 survivors of the Great Andamanese tribe remain. Their language too has mostly been lost, with Licho—the last speaker of the Sare Great Andamanese language—passing away earlier this year due to various health issues.

Concerns have also been raised regarding the safety of other isolated tribes on the Andaman islands. The islands are home to five PVTGs, including the Jarawa, North Sentinelese, Onge and Shompen tribes.

“It is extremely alarming that members of the Great Andamanese tribe tested positive for Covid-19. They will be all too aware of the devastating impact of epidemics that have decimated their people. The Andaman authorities must act urgently to prevent the virus reaching more Great Andamanese and to prevent infection in the other tribes,” Survival International Senior Researcher, Sophie Grig stated.

Experts are worried that the isolated Jarawa and uncontacted Sentinelese tribes, lacking the immunity to withstand aggressive strains of infections, are extremely vulnerable to diseases from outsiders.

“Given the varying degrees of protective-isolation or integration, example, the Sentinelese are completely isolated on an exclusive island away from any engagement with the outside world – their immunity levels would be woefully low and our ability to contain and manage the pandemic therein, extremely challenging and uncharted,” Singh said.

“The challenge is applicable and more susceptible on other tribes like the Jarawas, Ongese or Shompens who have been afforded their own space and lifestyle to allow them to integrate in a calibrated pace, albeit, with a semblance of deliberate ‘protection’ from outsiders,” he told The Citizen.

The Indian Express quoted Amit Kumar Ghosh, Superintending Anthropologist at the Anthropological Survey of India as saying, “The Great Andamanese have been in contact with outsiders for the last 50 years. But a disease like this could wipe out the entire population of the Jarawas and Sentinelese.”

Recently eight fishermen were arrested for illegally entering and fishing in the territory reserved for the Jarawa tribe. Earlier this month, reports emerged of five staff members of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) testing positive for coronavirus, raising further concerns over the spread of the virus among the vulnerable Jarawas. The AAJVS is an autonomous body which advises the administration on the protection and welfare of aboriginal tribes, especially the Jarawas.

According to Survival International, the Jarawa continue to be at risk “from welfare staff who have been insufficiently quarantined” and poachers who enter their reserved forest area, despite strict regulations.

The tribal welfare official told The Citizen that all efforts have been made to isolate the vulnerable tribes in order to prevent them contracting the virus.

“From the first lockdown, the Jarawas have been absolutely isolated from the Andaman Trunk Road. They have already been shifted to the west coast.” The Andaman Trunk Road cuts through the Jarawa reserve.

“The Ongese are completely isolated because their geographic area is such, nobody can go inside because the sea is very rough. Except the coast guard with the vessel, nobody can go in that area. So they are completely isolated,” the official stated, adding that they were all “trying very hard” to protect the PVTGs.

With COVID-19 reaching the remotest regions of the country, eternal questions of ‘development’ and tribal integration have surfaced yet again.

“For the longest time, questions of tribal integration with the mainstream loomed with matching pros-and-cons on both sides of the argument. Much before the advent of Covid-19, the possibilities of even a basic viral epidemic loomed on our minds to consider some sort of deliberate reach-out and preemptive planning – however, Covid 19 is a danger of an unthought and incalculable magnitude and potential devastation,” Singh told The Citizen.

So far, 3,018 cases have been reported in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. 2,374 have recovered while the death toll stands at 42.

Cover Photo: Representative image, AP