Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, unprotected from the Covid-19 pandemic

Advancing contagion keeps the border shared by Brazil, Colombia and Peru on alert
The Brazilian state of Amazonas, where most of the country's indigenous people live, is one of the regions most affected by the pandemic

AFP/ RICARDO OLIVEIRA  -   The Brazilian state of Amazonas, where most of the country's indigenous people live, is one of the regions most affected by the pandemic

The coronavirus endangers the world's lung inhabitants. The Amazon has set off the alerts of the authorities in Brazil, Colombia and Peru to the advance of the pandemic. The UN has called for greater support and more responses in this region of the Amazon as the Covid-19 continues to advance, affecting a large proportion of indigenous communities. The goal is no less: to save the lives of the 170,000 people living in remote areas along the Amazon River. 

Brazil's indigenous people have been among the first to become aware of the gravity of the situation. That is why they have asked the WHO to set up a specific emergency fund to protect them, because if the coronavirus is a threat to everyone, it is especially so to the indigenous communities, traditionally decimated by epidemics that reach them through the white man. 

In countries like Colombia, on the other hand, the reality is particularly critical. Its triple frontier situation, with legal and illegal border crossings where there are barely three hospitals, coupled with the shortage of health personnel, has forced indigenous communities to isolate themselves in their resguardos for fear of contagion.

Indigenous people from various ethnic groups pose for portraits in traditional tribal dress and face masks amidst the spread of the new co
AP/FELIPE DANA - Indigenous people from various ethnic groups pose for portraits in traditional tribal dress and face masks amidst the spread of the new coronavirus

The Amazon, with a deficient hospital network, has become the department with the most new infections, only surpassed by Bogotá, the Colombian capital. After a month of March in which hardly any cases were detected, in less than four months the region has climbed to 11,300 positive cases. Its capital, Leticia, at the southern end of the rhombus-shaped map of Colombia, has the highest infection rate in the country. 

Poor data have so far resulted in the deaths of 385 indigenous people. Among them is a well-known face, that of Antonio Bolívar, the 75-year-old actor who played Karamakate in the award-winning film The Serpent's Embrace. These days, many in Colombia have remembered that his character was precisely the one who guided a foreign ethnobotanist into the jungle in search of a miraculous plant with almost magical healing properties. There was not one for him, who died of the virus in the middle of a structural lack of means with which to attend to him.

The indigenous people, however, do not give up hope. "There was a sense of catastrophe at the beginning. But soon stories of healing experiences from the Malocas, traditional ceremonial houses, families and traditional health specialists began to circulate," anthropologist Marta Pabón told Atalayar. For now, in the absence of more data and a detailed study of what has happened in the area, there is a feeling among the professionals who work side by side with the indigenous peoples every day that, in some way, certain ancient practices may have played a role in containing certain symptoms.

Colombia's indigenous Tikuna people pose with face masks amid concerns about the coronavirus COVID-19, in Leticia, Amazonas Department, Colombia
AFP/TATIANA DE  NEVO - Colombia's indigenous Tikuna people pose with face masks amid concerns about the coronavirus COVID-19, in Leticia, Amazonas Department, Colombia

Traditional medicine, however, is not enough. Colombia formally closed its borders on 17 March, but the boundaries become blurred in the Amazon rainforest. Leticia, the axis of that triple Amazon border, defines the deepest Colombia. There, mobility is constant and the barriers are very difficult to erect. "The virus entered the Colombian Amazon in April along a street in the Brazilian Tabatinga. These are Siamese populations, with a fluid commercial exchange, very close to the Peruvian island of Santa Rosa," explains Ángela López of the Solidaridad Leticia association in Atalayar. This Colombian department, with a population of 79,000, has just 68 hospital beds and four intermediate care beds. But the worst thing, in the eyes of the experts, is that there is no ICU, a factor that can trigger dire consequences. "One of our fears is that entire ethnic groups will become extinct," Martha Vives, Vice Dean of Science at Uniandes, told Atalayar.

This is not the first time that the Amazon has experienced a situation that puts a large part of its population in danger. Many of those who work in the territory remember these days of the fateful 1988, when the indigenous Nukak people of south-eastern Colombia had their first contact with outsiders and, as a result, the flu devastated at least half of their population. But their drama did not end there. The survivors of this people, hunters and gatherers, were then pushed by settlers and armed groups who took over their forest and forced them to flee and settle for years in the city of San José del Guaviare. 

Thus, according to reports from workers in these areas, when the first news of an unprecedented and rapidly advancing pandemic reached their ears, the few Nukak left alive rushed back into the jungle before the Colombian Government could decree any kind of restriction of movement. "While the pandemic has provided a breathing space for the atmosphere, it has highlighted all the problems these indigenous peoples have. Among them, most importantly, the lack of hospitals," says the director of the NGO Amazon Conservation Team, Carolina Gil to Atalayar. 

The Brazilian Armed Forces medical team arrives in the town of Cruzeirinho, near Palmeiras do Javari, Amazonas state, in northern Brazil, on 18 June 2020, to assist the indigenous population in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic
AFP/ EVARISTO SA - The Brazilian Armed Forces medical team arrives in the town of Cruzeirinho, near Palmeiras do Javari, Amazonas state, in northern Brazil, on 18 June 2020, to assist the indigenous population in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

According to the Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, up to September, more than 52,628 confirmed cases and 1,636 deaths have been reported in indigenous peoples of the Amazon. "Civil society cannot be oblivious to this reality, and from our organisation, together with other NGOs, we have worked actively to accompany the indigenous communities in the humanitarian emergency they are experiencing," says Gil. 

In Peru, the pandemic has accelerated the agony of two indigenous peoples in the Amazon region who have been hit by the disease: the Awajún and the Wampís. In the country's northern jungle, medical care has always been poor, and today only 30 percent of health workers operate. The rest have been infected because they did not receive sufficient protective equipment and medicines in time, despite having requested them since April, according to Atalayar Mary Carreño, head nurse at the local hospital in Puerto Nariño, on the banks of the Amazon River. "It is no secret that the health infrastructure in the Amazon is abysmal. Here there is a hospital with an emergency room, hospitalization and outpatient clinic. Sometimes we don't even have light bulbs to illuminate patients who come in with fractures, we have to see the bone with torches," says Carreño. 

After five months of the pandemic, the situation in Colombia remains critical. After six months of confinement, the government headed by Iván Duque lifted all restrictions on movement a fortnight ago, including a total opening of national borders and a partial and gradual opening of international ones. This Sunday, Colombia added 7,355 new cases for a total of 716,319 people infected since the beginning of the pandemic.