* One in five Covid-19 cases develop into serious respiratory illnesses. In tribal areas these would lead to death due to a lack of healthcare

Around the same time that the country shut itself to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly a quarter of its people were preparing for the busiest season of the year. April to June is the harvest period for forest produce such as mahua flowers, tendu leaves, wild honey and gum. The lockdown brought work to a standstill. Alongside the health emergency, at stake are the lives and livelihood of more than 100 million adivasi or scheduled tribe people — 90 per cent of whom live in rural areas, typically hamlets inside forests — and another 150 million non-adivasiforest dwellers.

However, there has been little news coverage, except for sporadic reports and government announcements, on the fate of these forest communities. Experts warn that there can be a higher death toll from Covid-19 in these areas because of poor health infrastructure. A lack of income before the monsoons may further drive many to hunger and debt.

Poor health and immunity

Adivasis already face a higher burden of infectious and respiratory diseases than the non-adivasi population, according to a 2018 report of the central government’s Expert Committee on Tribal Health. On an average, about 40 per cent of illnesses among adivasis is from infections (27 per cent for non-adivasis) and 18 per cent from respiratory diseases (14 per cent in non-adivasi population).

Lack of healthcare facilities make tribal areas vulnerable to a high mortality from Covid-19 infections, says Dr Abhay Bang, chairperson of the committee and a well-known doctor working in adivasi areas in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra.

While the private health sector is absent in these parts, the government healthcare system is riddled with staff shortages and absenteeism. So, adivasis with symptoms are more likely to consult quacks and so-called faith healers. According to WHO (World Health Organization), nearly 20 per cent of all Covid-19 infections develop into serious respiratory illnesses. Serious cases in tribal areas are more likely to lead to death due to lack of healthcare, says Dr Bang.

Testing is again a major challenge in remote forest areas. In Gadchiroli, for instance, nearly 1,500 tribal villages are dependent on just one sample collection centre at the district hospital, which sends the samples to Nagpur to add to a growing wait-list.

Without extensive testing, Covid-19 may go unrecognised and deaths will be unrecorded or assigned to other causes such as pneumonia, Dr Bang says.

“Maybe with high pneumonia deaths, alarm bells will ring. It will be too late by then.”

Protecting income

In the first phase of the lockdown, forest departments stopped people from entering forests, says Tushar Dash, an Odisha-based independent consultant on tribal affairs who is preparing a report on the current situation in forest communities. “This was unnecessary as tribals do not enter forests in large groups and anyway maintain distancing,” he adds.

The government warned that traders coming from urban areas to buy forest produce could infect tribal communities. “It is essential to obviate the movement of middlemen from urban areas to tribal habitations,” union tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda wrote to the chief ministers of 15 states on April 6.

The same day, the environment ministry issued an order barring entry into wildlife sanctuaries and national parks to “stop the infection from spreading to animals”. A group of scientists wrote to the ministry that there was no evidence of human-animal transmission, and that nearly four million people depend on forests for a living.

Collection of forest produce was finally exempted from the lockdown on April 16. Although the government has asked 15 states with a significant adivasi population to procure forest produce directly from the communities, only Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha have embarked on this, according to central government data released on April 30.

In the absence of procurement, traders might force forest dwellers to make “distress sales”, the tribal affairs ministry has written to the state governments.

While the potential loss of income from forest produce has been reported more widely across India, there is little news reporting from forest areas and all information available is from local campaigners with working cell phones, says Dash. “But the little information we are getting shows there is a major impact on a quarter of India’s population.”

Need for urgent action

Of particular concern are the so-called particularly vulnerable tribal groups, or PVTGs, a sub-group of adivasis earlier known as primitive tribes. These communities are poorer and have greater dependence on forests, and they are also smaller in number; some such as the Koraga group in Kasaragod, Kerala, number just about 1,600.

“We must consider PVTGs as some of the precious human races that need protection. But I cannot see any special plan or package for their protection from Covid-19,” says KH Amita Bachan, a Kerala-based researcher and member of the tribal affairs ministry’s expert group on PVTGs’ land rights.

Without measures for income support, forest communities face the threat of malnutrition and even debt trap, says Pratibha Shinde of Lok Sangharsh Morcha, an organisation that works in forest areas in southern Gujarat and north Maharashtra.

The Lok Sangharsh Morcha has demanded that jobs under the employment guarantee scheme MGNREGA be initiated ahead of the monsoons, before the villages are cut off by floods or rainwater, and people are left with no work.

“They can start tree plantation or any other work,” says Shinde. “Otherwise, if not from Covid-19, people will die of hunger.”

Nihar Gokhale is an environment and development journalist