As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, certain populations are at greater risk than others. We know older people, those who are immunocompromised, and those of certain ethnicity are at greater risk of severe complications of this disease and even death. A particularly high risk population are indigenous peoples with little to no contact.
One such group are the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. It is estimated that 900,000 or so indigenous Amazonians exist to date. Most of them are in western Brazil. These people have been decimated by other epidemics, such as influenza and measles, which have been brought by miners, loggers and deforestation initiatives. The first Yanomami COVID-19 deaths two months ago raised fears of outsiders bringing this disease to vulnerable immune-naive people. What is now happening now in Brazil is more deliberate and fearful.
Current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a staunch opponent to protecting the country’s indigenous people. He holds far-right views and in the past has disbanded Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, with no reason given. Furthermore, under Bolsonaro, aggressive tactics in taking over indigenous land have increased. According to a recent report by Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council, 153 indigenous territories had been invaded since January 2019, compared with 76 last year. Bolsonaro’s mining minister, Bento Albuquerque, announced legislation to allow mining and agriculture on indigenous lands. Step by step, Bolsonaro has undermined the well-being of indigenous people and their interests.
Bolsonaro’s approach to mitigating and managing COVID-19, should not be of surprise to anyone. He is purposefully neglecting these vulnerable populations. Brazil’s Funai indigenous agency has delivered 82,000 basic food and 43,000 hygiene kits over the last three months. This lack of aide in a period of time forced isolated populations to risk traveling to seek help. Guilherme Samaias, 64, is thought to have contracted the disease when he traveled to a nearby town to collect an emergency aid payment. When he became ill, he was promised a medical airlift to Manaus, but it never materialized.
And when they got help, chiefs like Katia Silene Akrãtikatêjê, 51, from the Gavião tribe in Pará state, caught COVID-19 after a government health team visited their village due to inadequate personal protective hygiene. On 5 June, federal prosecutors warned of federal government neglect in protecting indigenous people from the pandemic. Celebrated indigenous leader Raoni said Bolsonaro was “taking advantage” of the coronavirus to eliminate indigenous people.
So far 146 Yanomami have contracted of COVID-19 and 4 have died. Edney Samias, 38, a chief of the Kokama people in the Amazon region of Alto Solimões, said that Covid-19 has killed 57 people in his tribe – including his own father. 64 year old chief of the Xikrin, Bep Karoti Xikrin, died of COVID-19, and with his death the trip lost decades of knowledge and leadership. The Munduruku people alone have lost 10 sábios, or wise ones. The victims include prominent figures such as Paulinho Paiakan, a Kayapó leader who fought alongside rock star Sting against the Belo Monte dam. The indigenous organization Apib has logged at least 332 Covid-19 deaths, and 7,208 coronavirus cases across 110 communities.
Brazil’s indigenous health service, Sesai, it says has spent £11m fighting COVID-19. On Tuesday the Brazilian congress approved a law aiming to guarantee emergency help for indigenous people that needs presidential approval. But I see that as too late. Whole tribes, like the Kokoma, are hungry… Forcing indigenous people and NGOs to develop their own solutions to this purposeful neglect. When Funai food baskets failed to arrive, indigenous groups and local Funai officials raised money to buy and distribute their own. The Brazilian NGO Health Expeditionaries has set up temporary infirmaries around this vast region with room for hammocks and oxygen concentrators to help patients from more than 700 remote communities without sending them to hospital.
It is terrifying to see these happening. One could argue that it is a form of genocide. Aside from protecting these at-risk peoples and their cultures, indigenous peoples around the world protect 80% of earth’s remaining biodiversity. To destroy them is to destroy our future. To help please check out some of these NGOs which are dedicated to protecting the Amazon and indigenous rights in Brazil: