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Dialogue between Maria Fernanda Espinosa and Salim Abdool Karim

50 Minds for the Next 50. Heritage in the post-COVID World

Maria Fernanda Espinosa

Academic, politician, diplomat and former president of the UN General Assembly

Salim Abdool Karim

Epidemiologist and professor of global health at Columbia University

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… The sense of community and the traditional governance system are supported by indigenous knowledge, contributing to safeguarding heritage in times of global crisis.

In the Next 50… Heritage protection is conducted by a shared approach with the spirit of the word ubuntu, meaning ‘I exist not as an island and not in a vacuum, I exist because you exist’.


The dialogue between Maria Fernanda Espinosa and Salim Abdool Karim was centred on the impacts and pre-exisiting problems of society during COVID-19. The pandemic uncovered the vulnerability of a divided society and its inequality. Espinosa explained how indigenous people’s lifestyles, knowledge and cultural diversity were impacted by the pandemic. Despite this, she believes that indigenous knowledge is key to promoting a sense of community and traditional governance systems that can help safeguard heritage in times of global crisis. Karim taught us the word ubuntu that invokes the traditional African culture of mutual interdependence and social bonds to respond to the global crisis. He stressed the need to stand together as a world community, as shown by the African continent during the pandemic.


While grappling with COVID-19, we understand that part of our future in this post-COVID vision is related to the importance of biodiversity, heritage and our indigenous cultures. What are your thoughts on how the pandemic has impacted biodiversity, indigenous culture and heritage?

If you look at indigenous people from around the world, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic became and still is an existential threat to these communities. Not only to their health and livelihoods but also to their life-supporting ecosystems, their traditional knowledge and their cultural heritage. Heritage is not only about built heritage but about knowledge systems, the community and about collective cultural legacies. Indigenous peoples had the highest COVID mortality rates. In the United States, for example, the highest numbers correspond to First Nations people, African Americans and the Latino community. This is due to access to vaccines and healthcare but also a reluctance to be vaccinated. What we have witnessed is that transactional inequalities are key to understanding the pandemic variables. Poverty, exclusion, racism and sexism translate into higher vulnerability and mortality. This was the lesson we learned with COVID-19.

Indigenous communities were already impacted by pre-existing marginalization, structural inequalities and systemic racism, but what we see is that government measures came too late or were insufficient to tackle the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.

On biodiversity, I think the depletion of biodiversity and ongoing destruction of ecosystems is a pre-COVID structural situation, which was magnified with the pandemic.

We know that indigenous peoples living remotely, or even voluntarily in isolation, have suffered the most. As an epidemiologist, Salim, you know of the lack of immunity of many to infectious diseases of so called ‘West’. In the Amazon region, where I come from, it is estimated that up to 78 indigenous communities live in isolation. Together with the encroachment of their lands by illegal loggers and mining this boosted contagion threats to these communities. Culture is thus very connected by adversity, and indigenous people's lifestyles were very disrupted by the pandemic. Indigenous people's cultures and lifestyles are the foundation of their resilience and social cohesion, and suddenly, with COVID-19, they were prohibited to gather, mark special events, harvest, partake in coming-of-age ceremonies and other community activities. These aspects undermined and disrupted their local culture.

If we speak about heritage, built and intangible heritage, from the Amazon to Siberia, the loss of elders due to COVID-19 was profoundly painful given their wisdom and status as cultural knowledge and language bearers. Unfortunately the pandemic killed many tribal elders in the Peruvian Amazon, in Russian Siberia and in the Australian Outback. Some of them were last speakers of endangered indigenous languages.

The general assessment is not promising, but what was promising was the creative manner in which indigenous communities organized themselves. Women played a very important role in food supply systems and solidarity mechanisms to access Western medicine, but also in fostering traditional medicine. For example, the eight countries of the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) got together to gather data and to exchange good practices. They created their own transboundary programme to protect themselves and to learn from each other.

So this is the spark of hope we have learned in this pandemic, as well as the connectedness of culture, heritage, indigenous collective rights and inequalities. In this regard, how can knowledge, traditions, structures of communities be better used to respond to these global crises, not only pandemics but also climate?

You've very nicely captured the full ramifications of this pandemic by the way in which inequality was manifested by COVID 19 and the the vulnerable had, yet again, to deal with many of the harmful effects of the pandemic.

In relation to your question on responding to the novel coronavirus SARS COVID-2 in early 2020, countries that did really well initially were mainly those in Southeast Asia that built on their strong traditions, for example, in the use of masks. Mask wearing is not something new to many of those cultures as it is fundamentally about protecting others, such as in public transport. That for me is a critically important issue. We haven't really grasped the way in which our traditions and knowledge are focused on protecting and caring for others. Not just this kind of ‘me first’ narcissism that we seem to be promoting in many of our cultures.

In Africa, we have a word for it, ubuntu, made famous by our first democratic president in South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Ubuntu simply means ‘I am because you are’, ‘I exist, not as an island, I exist not in a vacuum. I exist because you exist’. This fundamental tradition of African culture is one that needed to be invoked in a way that brought forward a way of dealing with COVID-19. That is ‘I am safe, when you are safe, you are safe, when I am safe’. It is reflected in both our fundamental mutual interdependence and our strong belief in our traditions.

Thinking about that and how it has been used, can you share with us some of your insights about how the knowledge of indigenous peoples has been used to safeguard heritage during this global crisis?

I cannot agree more. First of all, I think that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. As a poet I'm saying this to mean that this is nature’s way to speak to humanity and tell us that we are trespassing planetary boundaries because zoonotic diseases are disruptions in the natural environment because of what we are doing to planet Earth.

When we look at indigenous people's lifestyles, and I have lived and worked in the Ecuadorian Amazon for several years, there is an incredible knowledge of thousands of years in understanding that nature is not something that is outside of human life, it is part of the Earth’s system, of which we are part. We have to take care of our home. In a way, it's the main starting point. We all know that indigenous peoples hold a very rich diversity of cultures, languages and living heritage. You mention the knowledge, representations, expressions and skills that remain so relevant in the twenty-first century and their knowledge of biodiversity and traditional medicine that was deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I had the privilege to take part in some of the exchanges with COICA when they were putting together this observatory for sharing good practices, knowledge and experiences of resilience from communities. I think that you were so right when you brought up the concept of ubuntu. This sense of solidarity and collective action I think is a great teaching for Western societies. Unfortunately, we witnessed very selfish behaviours, vaccine hoarding at one time and extreme nationalism, even though we knew that no-one was safe until everybody was safe. To this very day, we are experiencing a big gap on access to vaccines and health services.

Unfortunately, people continue to die. Indigenous peoples, rural communities that live far from health services, continue to die. It is true that COVID-19 showed us the greater vulnerability of a divided society. I believe that indigenous knowledge can safeguard heritage in times of global crisis. It is promoting exactly the sense of community and traditional governance systems, a reinforced community, and the ability to respond collectively and to build resilience, that we need in these troubled times.

As a scientist, Salim, how can collaboration be fostered and accelerated to bridge science, culture and heritage, especially in Africa? I was really positively impressed by the sense of collective action of the African Union in its response: the collective procurement, the exchange of knowledge, the solidarity that we saw among African communities and countries. I'm sure you have first-hand experience, having been so close to the response team in South Africa.

We understand in dealing with a crisis like COVID-19 that our ability to stand together is fundamental. Yet it has also been a time when we have been more divided, and now with a war in Ukraine. So much of what we are doing is the opposite of what is demanded of us. There is no world scenario that sees a handful of countries controlling the pandemic while rampantly spreading in others. Every time this virus spreads from one person to another, it increases the chance of more mutations. As a world community, we have to find a way at looking at our different cultures and societies. That's what we've been trying to do in Africa, in standing together under the African Union and the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, when we couldn't buy diagnostic kits because, individually, we didn't have the buying power to do so, we had to come together. I believe that's what gave us our strength. That's what enabled us to build that resilience in Africa.

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