Coping with Covid-19 in the North Rupununi

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It was the early part of March 2020, and we were in the midst of the national election season. All the communities were excited about who would be the next President. There was tension between the different political party supporters., and it was not long before we realised that there were issues with reporting the final results of the elections. And in all of this turmoil there came the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus otherwise known as Covid-19.

The messages on the outbreak of the virus became viral on social media and the local news. I personally took it for China’s problem and didn’t expect it to become the world’s concern. Little of the turmoil was close to the communities, so we continued to live our daily lives as per normal. It was the time of preparing farms for the upcoming rainy season, so many were off to the farming grounds to get in readiness.  However, within two weeks of the disputed elections, our world changed. The virus was now in the country and the government was moving to take action. The Ministry of Education closed schools.

When the National Grade Six Examinations were cancelled, parents realised that the situation was serious. As we headed into the Easter break, there was much expectation and excitement for kite flying, family picnics and the annual Rupununi Rodeo.  However, none of this was possible due to the gazetted rules to fight the spread of the Coronavirus. When Easter passed and school still did not reopen, parents started to take notice and question what was happening. Community members who were following the news on social media or on Radio Paiwomak began to get serious-minded. Communities like Annai and Surama, villages accessed off the main road, erected gates to control the flow of coastlanders into their communities and to stop villagers from leaving.

Stay Home! This was new to us – staying at home is not part of our life and our understanding of it meant, “being lock up in a house and just be at home.” This was unheard of. Most people felt this didn’t matter for us because we live in communities where there is wide open space to move around. This seemed a measure more suited to cities where people are crowded. Practice Social distancing! This has been the most difficult for us to adapt to because we are accustomed to being together, working together and socializing together. It was very challenging for me personally to keep distancing myself from everyone and everything, for the sake of my family.

 

It’s been approximately three months since the pandemic began to affect us, and there are both positive and negative impacts on us the Indigenous people. On a positive note, since the pandemic, I have observed everyone, including public servants and other employed persons, focusing fully on farming. This has allowed a larger proportion of the community, including children, to practice the knowledge of growing food.  Currently, many farmer households are living in the “backdams” (farmgrounds) and living in a way to ensure they are not exposed to the virus. In addition, community members are focusing on cultivating their own kitchen gardens.  Many of the men are out fishing, as the fish are “marching” to spawn. The pandemic has enabled working parents to have time with their children and for families to have time for each other. Some communities have also used the opportunities to engage in Matriman (self-help), for example my village of Wowetta has had two sessions to clean and maintain the Cock of the Rock site that is used as part of a birding package for ecotourism by Surama village.

Nevertheless, for some it has meant that they cannot make a dollar – minibuses plying the route to Lethem, shop owners losing sales as people headed to the farm, those who depended on daily wage work.  In addition, parents who are not literate cannot teach their children at home. Even though the Ministry of Education will allow schools to reopen for revision before the exams, many people are concerned about the disadvantage to Indigenous children.

We Darwin project staff have been able to remain healthy to date. The NRDDB has instituted a rotation policy with staff coming in every other day. We have been adhering to the Covid guidelines and measures put in place by our leaders. We miss going out to the communities and sharing news from the project and working with the community researchers. Nonetheless, we continue to work –  we are concerned about completing project activities by our deadlines, but realise that much is dependent on directions from the leaders and government. We have been lucky that the only few positive cases came to us from Brazil, but there is considerable concern with the disease so close to us across the border. The government is slowly opening the country but the stay at home policy is still in place. We pray people take care and caution when travelling and remember others as we attempt to move to a new normal.

Grace Albert
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Grace Albert has 5 years’ experience in community development and visual methodologies. She speaks fluent Makushi and English, and has strong skills in community facilitation and engagement, visual methods, and her local Makushi traditions. Following a strong grounding in further education courses of natural resource management, wildlife management, agriculture , information technology, leadership and culture, she has worked for the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB), a local Indigenous community-based organization, in several roles. This includes as a radio broadcaster, a community film maker and most recently as a Community Research Assistant. With these experiences, Grace hopes to remain as a resource person for her community and is committed towards development of her homeland.