The shamans of the Amazon basin are doing their best to control Covid-19. But the pandemic is striking with such intensity that it is beyond the capacity of indigenous leaders to act.
There are already nearly 7,000 cases of infection in the Amazon Basin, and according to the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), there have already been 639 official deaths among 93 indigenous nationalities. Cases have been reported in all Amazon countries, from Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil to Guyana, French Guiana, Peru, Ecuador and Suriname.
"Feel our pain, feel our emergency," said Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, coordinator of COICA, on April 24th in a call to governments via videoconference.
More than 45 days later, the situation has only got worse.
Disaster in Brazil
The most severely affected country in terms of confirmed cases among indigenous people is Brazil, with 2,642 cases. Covid-19 has killed 218 indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon, according to COICA data as of May 9th . The disease has already affected more than 80 nationalities in Brazil, amidst a crisis that shows no signs of slowing.
In Brazil, where there have been more than 740,000 cases and 38,000 deaths, according to official figures, the most affected regions are in or near the Amazon rainforest. The state of São Paulo has recorded almost 10,000 deaths, and one person out of every 314 has contracted the new coronavirus. In Amapá, the rate is much higher, with 1 person per 62; in the state of Amazonas, 1 per 81; in Roraima, 1 per 98.
"We are dealing with the Covid-19 disease in our land and we are very sad about the first deaths among the Yanomami. Our shamans are working non-stop against the xawara (epidemic). We will fight and we will resist. To do that, we need the support of Brazilians and the whole world," said Dario Yanomami of the Hutukara Yanomami Association.
In the Amazon, Covid-19 already has a genocidal dimension, neurologist Erik Jennings Simões said in an interview with GQ. According to Jennings, there has been a 550% increase in the number of deaths in one month in the region. The mortality rate in the general population is 5.7%, while in the indigenous population it's 9.7%, he said.
Peru has the highest number of indigenous deaths, with 349 fatalities with 2,191 total cases, according to official records. That’s a 16% mortality rate among indigenous communities. In the Peruvian Amazon, 638 people have died, which shows that more than half -54.7%- of fatalities in the region affect indigenous people, according to COICA data. Nationally, indigenous deaths from Covid-19 represent 6% of all fatalities, totalling to more than 5,700.
Despite the fact that the associations of indigenous peoples in Ecuador are among the best organized politically in the world, and that they decided to block access to the territories until the pandemic is brought under control, the spread of the virus couldn’t be stopped.
More than 60% of the indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon lack access to health centres and those where there are centres, they lack medical equipment and medicines, according to figures from the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO). In the last few weeks, we have seen an increase in the infected indigenous population and an increase in mortality in the native communities.
After Brazil and Peru, Colombia has the highest number of infections among indigenous people, with 1,809. This figure is noteworthy because the country is among those that have managed to contain the pandemic relatively successfully. At the national level, the most affected region of Colombia is the Amazon region.
Leticia, the capital of Amazonas region, on the border with Brazil and Peru, Colombia's Amazon region has already seen more than 3,115 infections and 85 deaths, with twelve coming from indigenous communities.
Authorities and political leaders claim that the first cases in the city of Leticia, separated by only one street from the Brazilian city of Tabatinga, were imported from Manaus in Brazil. "Our border is too open, there are many places where you can pass through (...) the cases of Leticia (Colombia) and Tabatinga (Brazil) would have to be combined here because they are twin cities," regional governor Daniel Oliveira told AFP.
According to AFP, indigenous expert Antonio Bolívar, one of the stars of the famous film " El abrazo de la serpiente", died at the age of 75 from the Covid-19 in Leticia.
Ecuador and Bolivia
Despite having suffered major impacts from the coronavirus, Ecuador's Amazon region was not the epicentre of the country's pandemic. The first case among indigenous people in the country was recorded in mid-May. In those few weeks, however, the virus has already infected 272 indigenous people of seven different nationalities and killed 22, according to COICA. Despite the fact that the associations of indigenous peoples in Ecuador are among the best organized politically in the world, and that they decided to block access to the territories until the pandemic is brought under control, the spread of the virus couldn’t be stopped.
The pandemic is also affecting the Bolivian Amazon, with more than 12,280 confirmed cases and nearly 400 fatalities in the Amazon regions. Bolivia is currently experiencing a political deadlock, pending a presidential election that has been postponed amid great uncertainty, and the Covid-19 figures are unreliable and are likely to be under reporting the number of cases. Even so, in recent weeks the virus has spread, affecting 272 indigenous people of seven different nationalities and killing 22, according to COICA.
Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana
Officially, Venezuela has recorded 819 cases in the Amazon region, 8 of which came from indigenous people with zero deaths. But if in Bolivia the figures are dubious, in Venezuela there is a consensus that the official numbers are significantly further from reality. The situation in the Venezuelan Amazon is one of isolation and abandonment, and it is difficult to know what is really happening there.
Lastly, Suriname recorded one infection case and zero deaths from 128 regional cases; Guyana one case and one death from 154 cases in the Amazon; and French Guiana has one death among indigenous people, according to the register maintained by COICA.
The situation in the Amazon is of deep concern to local NGOs and indigenous leaders, who are aware of the extreme vulnerability of these communities. Because of the neglect and systemic discrimination by the governments, the Amazon regions and their native communities face higher levels of poverty and less education, as well as lack of access to drinking water and health care, and cultural and even linguistic barriers.
These structural inequalities look even starker in the face of this crisis, which is unprecedented in recent history. In Brazil - a country that elected a president who has promised to clear the Amazon rainforest to boost the economy through soya, livestock and mining - the consequences of the state's disinterest in indigenous peoples have proved fatal.
In one of the countries most affected by the pandemic worldwide, the virus is spreading most rapidly in precisely those areas where some of the world's most endangered people live. Even among the most remote tribes, which should be safe because of their isolation, there is a danger of infection. Thus, the Yanomami have just launched an international campaign against the invasion of gold miners and the spread of COVID-19, according toSurvival International.
In addition, Amazonian Brazil shares a border with eight other countries and French Guiana. Many of them took tough and timely precautions to contain the virus, but the irresponsibility of the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who denied the gravity of the situation and avoided taking the measures adopted internationally, has proven to have deadly consequences, not only within Brazil, but throughout the region, and beyond.