CALI, Colombia – There is nowhere to hide from the new type of corona virus. Even the Amazon rainforest – one of the most remote wilderness areas in the world – is now plagued by infections. Tragically, COVID-19 also devastates fragile indigenous communities in the region and endangers entire cultures and populations.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) estimates that there are at least 20,000 active coronavirus cases in the Amazon Basin, the world’s largest water catchment area and home to many indigenous communities, including isolated tribes that survive without ongoing contact with the outside world.
The PAHO warned last week that indigenous peoples who “live in remote villages with minimal access to health services as well as in densely populated cities … will have disproportionate effects” if measures are not taken to curb the pandemic quickly.
So far, these steps are unlikely to be taken or will not be taken soon. Regional leaders and extreme right-wing populists such as the Colombian Iván Duque and the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro have orientated themselves on the aggressive carefree attitude of the US President Donald Trump. They have spoken out hard against financial aid and health infrastructure spending to curb the outbreak, while downplaying the crisis for political gain.
One of the regions that PAHO has identified as particularly badly affected is the Colombian state of Amazonas on the border with Brazil, one of the world’s leading coronavirus infection companies. Tests in this country of 212 million are very limited, and according to the Worldometer, of the approximately 735,000 people who have received tests, almost 350,000 (or 47 percent) have been positive. There have been more than 22,000 deaths and this number is expected to increase exponentially. The spread of the disease in Brazil is so great that the Trump administration issued a travel ban on Sunday.
“South America has become the new epicenter for the disease,” said Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergency program, at a press conference on Friday.
Colombia has closed and militarized the border with Brazil to prevent an influx of transmissions. However, ongoing shipping traffic in the Amazon and a vast network of secret jungle trails still form a porous border – and a rapidly growing number of cases.
Julio López, President of the Indigenous Peoples Organization of the Colombian Amazon [OPIAC], said local tribes in the region are at risk of “extermination” due to the health crisis.
“We could face the disappearance of entire cultures. Our elders die. Our way of life is at risk, ”he told The Daily Beast. Due to the blocking, the fields remain unattended and we cannot edit them. So what will we eat when the rainy season comes? ”
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OPIAC is headquartered in Amazonas’ capital, Leticia, a city of around 50,000 people located on an estuary called Tres Fronteras (Three Borders) where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. Since ethnic peoples lived here long before national borders were drawn, they usually pay little attention to such artificial divisions in their ancestral countries. In fact, families often live on one side of the triple border and work on subsistence farms on another side. Such conditions have already contributed to the collapse of the Amazon health system and a lack of available graves in Leticia.
“The government is taking precautionary measures now, but it’s not too late,” said López. “You put soldiers on the street to control the official crossings, but the border is immense. There is no way to patrol everything. ”
The urban indigenous population of Amazonas continues to depend on supplies of rice, grain and other basic goods from the interior of Brazil. Due to cross-border traffic, the Amazon has the worst infection rate per capita in all of Colombia and is also one of the poorest and poorest countries in this Andean nation.
“The situation in the Amazon is worrying given the concentration of cases [and] because the resources are fairly limited, “says Dr. Alfonso Rodríguez-Morales, a senior researcher at the Colombian Association for Infectious Diseases. He says the number of cases per capita is 9.5 times higher for the Amazon than for the Cartagena district and 22 times higher than for Bogotá.
The lack of test kits and laboratory equipment in the Amazon means that the actual infection rate is likely to be much higher than that reported by the government. Similarly, the official death toll at Leticia township is 35, but medical personnel say there are dozens of other unexplored deaths likely related to the outbreak. The city has only a small hospital and no intensive care units. According to López, there was a single ventilator in Leticia that is now broken.
The growing number of victims in the city and on the outskirts belongs to a large number of ethnic groups, including Huitoto, Moru, Ocaina and Bora.
“I asked Bogotá for planes to evacuate our people to work in other cities [ICU] Facilities and fans, ”says Lopez. “But they haven’t sent any help yet.”
A few hours upstream from Leticia in the village of Puerto Nariño, the local clinic identified 46 cases. Because the clinic has only one bed, the sickest patients are sent to the district capital in an ambulance boat that can only carry two victims at a time.
“I’m afraid that if things go on like this, we’ll be completely overwhelmed and run out of supplies,” says Dr. Diane Rodriguez, one of the few doctors and nurses in Puerto Nariño’s small health outpost.
“The Amazon is a paradise and foreign visitors like to come here,” says Rodriguez. Despite tourist dollars from river cruises, jungle tours and visits to “tribal villages” that have been flowing for decades, the state coffers are empty and vital resources are scarce and the health system is bleak. “For this reason, indigenous peoples who should be treated like national treasures are now at great risk,” said Rodriguez.
One such treasure at risk was Antonio Bolívar, a Huitoto elder who played a major role in the Oscar-nominated film Hug the snakeand succumbed to COVID-19 on May 1. Bolívar was 72 years old.
Unfortunately, the indifference of officials is nothing new. In fact, many of the underlying health factors that make indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus are the result of years of government neglect.
“Indigenous peoples both suffer from a lack of access to health care – with its associated effects on long-term diseases, chronic problems and comorbidities – which make them more susceptible to the coronavirus,” said Bret Gustafson, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington at St Louis, who specializes in Latin American indigenous movements.
“[They] Lack of access to treatment when they are affected by COVID and lack of effective self-isolation or quarantine means if there is an effect, ”says Gustafson. All of this “increases the impact” of the pandemic.
According to Dr. Rodriguez is one of those specific diseases of diabetes, hepatitis, tuberculosis and even HIV.
“Many households don’t even have access to drinking water,” she says. “Instead of being able to isolate themselves, families often have to sleep together in the same room, even if someone is already infected.”
In the absence of modern healthcare, many indigenous victims have turned to traditional healing methods to combat COVID-19.
“The elders have cures for colds and use them as best they can,” said OPIAC President López. “They brew from the ginger root and other herbs and fumigate the houses of the infected to reduce them [aerial] Transmission.”
For Gustafson, such well-intentioned but understandably limited self-healing efforts only underscore the state’s failure to provide basic care for vulnerable groups.
“Given the lack of access to biomedical treatments, facilities or infrastructures, it is perfectly understandable that people may turn to the only thing they have in the form of traditional remedies.
“But the lack of access to [modern] Resource is exactly the problem. “
Another problem is hunger. With many indigenous communities relying either on day labor or subsistence farming to put food on the table, the pandemic often means doing away with much-needed calories.
“Government support has been very low since quarantine,” said Lilia Tapayuri, a member of the indigenous council in Puerto Nariño.
“The risk of infection is very high because most people have to go to work. You don’t have the money to buy enough groceries to keep for several months. ”
The Colombian authorities have imposed strict blocking measures since March. But without adequate quarantine support, such regulations have forced many rural people to choose between obedient hunger or risky foraging.
“We can’t even go to our farms without breaking the law and being fined,” said Tapayuri. “Now the rain will come and flood the fields and we have not harvested anything to feed ourselves.”
All of this takes a huge toll on the local population and endangers vital traditions, cultures, languages and countless lives. Certain old dialects can be restricted to very small geographic areas, making their survival all the more precarious.
“Whole pueblos run the risk of disappearing,” says López. “Songs and oral stories could disappear forever, ceremonies and unique languages could be lost.”
The anthropologist Gustafson shares these concerns:
“To the extent that COVID appears to affect the elderly, it may mean a rapid exhaustion for those who generally maintain traditional languages and skills.”
For whole stories written in largely unwritten idioms, such a loss seems almost apocalyptic.
“The knowledge of the elders means everything to us,” says López. “Losing them means losing ourselves.”
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