Nine cases of Covid-19 have been recorded among the Great Andamanese tribe, setting off alarm bells in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration. A Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), the Great Andamanese now number only 59. While five of the coronavirus patients have recovered, the others are doing well, the officials said.
What is worrying the authorities is that the four new cases have been discovered in the remote Strait Island where the tribe is based. On Friday, a special community health officer will be reaching the island to keep a close watch on the tribe, as well as other PVTGs like the Jarawa, Shompen and Onge.
While the Union territory has seen 2,985 Covid cases (676 of which are active) and 41 deaths so far, the Great Andamanese is the first among its vulnerable tribes to be hit by the coronavirus.
Dr Avijit Roy, Joint Secretary, Health, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the nodal officer for the Union territory’s Covid-19 response, told The Indian Express that they had tested all the 59 Great Andamanese members — “34 in Strait Island and 24 in Port Blair” — after five of them living in Port Blair had tested positive.
He said the samples of the four on Strait Island who have tested positive were taken on August 22. “We got the report the next day. They were moved to isolation wards of G B Pant Hospital in Port Blair. They are cooperating well and recovering fast.”
Roy pointed out that unlike the other PVTGs, the Great Andamanese frequent Port Blair and the administration has built a special home for them to stay in the capital.
“The Great Andamanese are a small population but they are in touch with the general population. While no one is allowed to visit Strait Island, they are allowed to come and stay in Port Blair. So the risk of them getting Covid was high,” Vishvajit Pandya, a renowned anthropologist and director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute, said.
Pandya, who has been working in the Union territory since 1983, and was present when the Jarawas made first contact with the outside world in 1997, stressed on the need to keep the tribes isolated. “The administration should implement what it says. The Great Andaman Trunk Road has still not been shut. If the administration thinks that since the tribal groups are deep in the jungles they will not come in touch with settlers, they are wrong. Even the Jarawas, Shompens are vulnerable to Covid-19 because they engage with settlers in barter to get rice and other items. Even recently settlers were arrested inside the Jarawa reserve,” he said.
Amit Kumar Ghosh, the Superintending Anthropologist at the Anthropological Survey of India, pointed out that in the 1850s, the Great Andamanese numbered between 5,000 and 8,000. “Then a penal colony was set up and diseases like syphilis, gonorrhoea, flu and others spread. By 1901, their population had dropped to 625, and by the 1931 Census, only 90 Great Andamanese were left. By the 1960s, they were down to a mere 19, and were settled on Strait Island,” he said, highlighting the vulnerability of the PVTGs to illnesses.
Ghosh added that the danger is even higher for other tribes. “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.”
Roy said they were aware of the threat, and had taken appropriate measures. “No one is allowed into the areas where the tribal groups are located. All government and health officials who go there are tested for Covid prior to their visits. Only vehicles with essential commodities are moving on the Andaman Trunk Road which cuts through the Jarawa Reserve, and the drivers and others in vehicles are also tested before allowed in,” he said.
An official of the Tribal Welfare Department in-charge specifically of the Jarawas said, “A small team of ANM and department officials is posted near the forest where the tribe lives, keeping a watch while maintaining distance. All of them are housed in an isolation facility and regularly tested.”
The Andamans is home to five PVTGs, the Sentinelese, Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Onge and Shompen. This is besides the Nicobarese, who are Scheduled Tribes. The Sentinelese are the most recluse of them, resisting outside contact. In November 2018, an American national, 27-year-old John Allen Chau, had been killed by the Sentinelese when he tried to illegally approach them. Officials have not managed to recover his body till date.
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