Indigenous leaders are warning that a combination of neglect, inadequate preparations, and a lack of lockdown measures is exposing remote and vulnerable communities in the Amazon to potentially devastating outbreaks of COVID-19. The nationwide death toll in Brazil has soared above 11,000 amid growing anger at President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissive response. The situation is particularly bad in the Amazon gateway city of Manaus, where the number of fatalities is feared to be many times the official 500 to 600. Peru and Ecuador also have large outbreaks and significant Amazonian indigenous populations.
In Ecuador, which has the highest COVID-19 death rate per capita in Latin America—more than twice that of Brazil—dozens of elders and children from the Siekopa’ai (Secoya) community, which has been decimated by disease in the past, fled by canoe to isolate themselves in the central wetlands of Lagarto Cocha. By May 5, there were already 15 confirmed cases and two suspected deaths among its population of 744.
“No specific attention has been given to indigenous communities,” Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, chief coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, or COICA, an association of South American indigenous groups, told The New Humanitarian. “The pandemic has exposed that there are no doctors and no health infrastructure in these communities. There is no education, no phone connections, no computers, no internet.”
According to the 2010 census, some 817,000 Brazilians identify as indigenous, occupying 12.6% of the national territory. Mining, oil extraction, and deforestation have encroached onto their lands and threatened their way of life.
Despite the fact the region is still recovering from catastrophic 2019 wildfires, Bolsonaro announced in April that a vast Amazon reserve, the RENCA, could be opened for mining. Emboldened by the president’s stance, deforestation increased 51% during the first quarter of this year.
Amazonas is the Brazilian state with the largest indigenous population: more than 180,000. The largest indigenous people in Brazil is the Guarani, numbering 51,000, but the Yanomami, with 19,000 members, occupy the largest territory, some 9.4 million hectares.
The first indigenous death in Brazil was reported on 9 April when a 15-year-old member of the Yanomami succumbed to COVID-19 in the state of Roraima, an area long targeted by illegal gold miners. Since then, dozens more indigenous fatalities have been reported.
Reliable data on indigenous infections and deaths from COVID-19 is hard to come by. As of May 11, APIB, the largest umbrella group of indigenous organizations in Brazil, said 68 indigenous people had died across the country, with 283 infected.
As of May 8, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesiastical Network had recorded 36,602 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 2,247 deaths across the Amazon region, which encompasses much of northwestern Brazil and extends into Colombia, Peru, and several other South American countries. However, this data includes both indigenous and non-indigenous people.
Earlier epidemics in the world’s largest rainforest have decimated indigenous populations.
Between 1987 and 1990, 14% of Yanomami were killed by measles, brought to their communities by miners. And almost one in four Yanomami in four villages died in earlier illnesses after becoming infected as development projects took place nearby.
From The New Humanitarian, May 11.
Note: The major Amazon River ports of Manaus, Brazil, and Iquitos, Peru, are among the hardest hit cities in South America, and deaths are already reported from indigenous communities deep in the rainforest, where health services are virtually non-existent. Most recently, the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Oriente (ORPIO) has reported an outbreak among the Ticuna people of the remote Triple Border region where Peru, Brazil and Colombia meet, with at least seven deaths and some 50 suspected cases. (InfoRegión)
Grim scenes are also reported from Manaus, where authorities were dumping bodies in mass graves called “trincheiras”—trenches—before an outcry from mourning families saw the practice halted. (The Guardian) The city’s prison also saw an uprising May 2, with guards taken hostage, amid inmate fears of an outbreak within the facility—the most recent in a wave of prison rebellions in South America. (CNA) But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu,” downplayed the crisis as media “hysteria,” and repeatedly rejected his own government’s social distancing recommendations. (The Guardian, Al Jazeera) Brazil has seen over 15,000 deaths, and Bolsonaro has seen two consecutive health ministers step down since the crisis began. (BBC News)
At over 1,400 dead, Peru is second only to Brazil in Latin America—despite having a much smaller population. (The Guardian) And indigenous populations are particularly at risk. On May 16, the Asháninka and Matsigenkas community of Tangoshiari, in Cuzco region, issued an urgent statement to regional and national authorities to deliver masks and other emergency “hygene articles.” (CAAAP)