In the latter half of the 16th century, a famed friar and chronicler set out to write his “Treatise about the just causes for a war against the Indians.” The manuscript seeks to justify the enslavement of the natives and oppose a humane approach to the conquest. "The Spaniards are perfectly entitled to exert their dominance over these barbarians of the New World [...]” wrote Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, “whose wisdom, wit and any sort of human virtue or sentiment is so inferior to the Spanish man, as the child is to an adult, a female is to a male, the cruel and inhuman is to the meek-spirited one and, I shall say, the monkey is to man".
The world of which the Treatise spoke is long gone. It’s been over 500 years since the conquest of the Americas. However, the words of Friar Ginés stuck. And perhaps nowhere as much as in my home country, Guatemala. For the following centuries, the upper classes promoted the idea of a superior race. By the 19th century, a phrase (which is still common to date) had been coined: Mejorar la raza (Improve our race). It serves a double purpose: to celebrate European lineage and to suggest that the farther a Guatemalan is from his or her non-white roots, the better.
The State certainly took that phrase to heart. For the rest of the century and the first half of the 1900s, grossly unequal distribution of wealth, forced labour and State-sponsored violence were part of everyday life for indigenous peoples. It culminated in the Guatemalan Civil War, one of the longest armed conflicts in Latin American history, which resulted in the genocide of nearly 200,000 Mayans and the displacement of 1.5 million others.
Fervent apologists and misguided nationalists will be quick to tell you that these tragedies belong to a bygone era. They will claim that, following the signing of the Peace Accords in the 1990s, Guatemala became a country of equal opportunity. On the opposite side, human rights activists worry that the system which led to these tragedies never changed – it merely adapted.
Which side is right? Consider the following: There are more than 6.5 million people who identify as indigenous in Guatemala. At least 79% of them live in poverty (double the rate than that of non-indigenous Guatemalans), 35% suffer from food insecurity and, despite this, public expenditure for them is less than half of that for the rest of the population.
Guatemala has some 257,000 internally displaced citizens, more than 100,000 yearly migrants and some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the region. In all of these cases, the grand majority of those affected are indigenous. And this was all before COVID-19 struck.
The reported cases of gender-based and intrafamily violence, murders and child pregnancies have all increased during lockdown
The case of the children
“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela
The COVID-19 pandemic came to exacerbate all of these issues in a particularly grave manner for indigenous children.
The economic slump has pushed indigenous families further into poverty, slashing availability of essential resources and increasing child labour. The United Nations estimate that reduced access to clean water, sanitation and medical services will increase the number of respiratory diseases and cases of diarrhea. This is worrying by itself, and the scarcity of public health facilities in indigenous communities along with most of them already being overrun, only makes it worse.
Lockdowns intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 have had some deleterious effects on the safety of children, especially for girls. The reported cases of gender-based and intrafamily violence, murders and child pregnancies have all increased during lockdown. The justice system has not been able to cope.
Education, especially at a young age, is essential to achieve social mobility and reduce poverty, which is why remote learning was promoted as a solution amidst school closures. However, in a country where under 30% of the population has internet access and just 21% has access to a computer, remote learning will widen the gap between the haves (the urban Guatemala) and the have-nots (the rural Guatemala).
There is a macabre irony in the fact that the grimmest consequences of the pandemic did not stem from a disease for which there is no known cure, but from systemic issues that are well documented and long known
For those not lucky enough to be able to log in to online classes (more than 2 million elementary and preschool students), television, radios or print media are the only means by which they can learn. The lack of social interaction, individualized, constant teaching and physical activity will have lifelong effects.
On the same vein, school meals have been replaced with sporadic donations. As of July, the number of households that needed food and nutritional assistance increased by 102.8%, and cases of acute malnutrition for children under 5 increased by 112.1%.
Migrant children, most of them indigenous, are being deported by the hundreds from North America, some of which infected with COVID-19. Once home, they suffer acts of violence and discrimination from their own countrymen and women, who stigmatize them for being returnees and out of fear of contagion.
Waiting for a worse tomorrow
You might have noticed that none of the aforementioned statistics refer to a high mortality rate among children infected with COVID-19. That’s because that is not one of the main issues. Guatemalan indigenous children are more likely to die from malnutrition, neonatal disorders or violence than from newly discovered diseases. And that has been the case for decades.
There is a macabre irony in the fact that the grimmest consequences of the pandemic did not stem from a disease for which there is no known cure, but from systemic issues that are well documented and long known. An eventual vaccine will not solve this. The malnourished and under-educated children of today will be the underpaid and discriminated adults of tomorrow. And the cycle goes on.
Whether intentionally or not, it seems as if the Guatemalan State apparatus continues to work to the detriment of indigenous peoples. Without material and tangible change, a thousand principles that claim we’re all the same under the law make no difference. After all, even the “Laws of the Indies” claimed that the “conquistadores” and the “indians” had equal rights.