COVID-19 Reaches the Amazon, Where Vulnerable Indigenous Populations Are at Mortal Risk

Covid 19 Amazona BELatina
Photo Credit AP Edmar Barros

No, we are not talking about the company or its shipping packages; we are talking about the natural lungs of the world, the tropical jungle of the Amazon, and one of the last regions of the world that still preserves some virgin territory.

While thousands of cities around the world are in lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19, more isolated regions — with less access and fewer roads — have been the last to record cases, but could be the first to become one of the most catastrophic episodes in this saga. The pandemic is hitting these communities just as they are contending with an epidemic of violence directed against rainforest protectors and activists.

Last week, the first death by coronavirus of a 15-year-old boy in a Yanomami tribe was reported from the village of Rehebe on the Uraricoera River, according to CNN.

Brazil’s health minister said the boy had been in intensive care at Roraima General Hospital in Boa Vista since April 3. 

“Today we had a confirmed case in the Yanomami, which concerns us a lot,” he said. “This is a government concern for indigenous health.”

Despite being “the largest relatively isolated tribe in South America,” with an estimated 38,000 people, the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) explained that the route of transmission for these populations is “the miners who had illegally entered indigenous territory.”

“Today, without a doubt, the main vector for the spread of COVID-19 inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is the more than 20,000 illegal miners that go in and out of the territory without any control,” ISA said in a statement on its website.

“The Yanomami, as many other indigenous people, are among the groups most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 and should be urgently protected, under the risk of genocide with the complicity of the Brazilian State.”

A week later, the total number of confirmed infections among the tribes in Brazil totaled seven, “scattered across three Amazonian states,” according to National Geographic.

 “They include four Kokama relatives infected in the western state of Amazonas by a doctor from the indigenous health service who had recently returned from a conference in southern Brazil and failed to observe self-isolating protocols.”

Similarly, the death of another person has been confirmed in the north-central Amazon state of Pará, this time an 87-year-old Borari woman.

“Owing to the high degree of movement of people from one state to another in the Amazon, together with a lack of public policies… COVID-19 has fertile terrain to spread rapidly among the populations that live in Amazonia, which could lead to disaster in the short and medium term,” said Roque Paloschi, archbishop of Porto Velho, Rondônia and president of the Catholic rights group Indigenist Missionary Council.

Despite the fact that these communities have been protected by federal law in Brazil since 1987 — there are approximately 28 communities completely isolated from the world — and despite the titanic efforts of local and international organizations to protect tribes from disease in the urbanized world, the new policies of the far right government of Jair Bolsonaro could be the perfect combination for a catastrophe.

Since the beginning of his administration, Bolsonaro has been lobbying his legislators to legalize mining within indigenous lands in the Amazon, as well as turning a blind eye to illegal deforestation, endangering wildlife and indigenous communities alike.

“In my opinion, the only contingency plan that would guarantee the survival of these groups is the expulsion of invaders from these areas, and the protection of all lands where there are indications of the presence of isolates,” said Douglas Rodrigues, a specialist in indigenous health care from the Universidade Federal de São Paulo, to National Geographic. Rodrigues has worked in native Amazonian communities for the past 40 years. “It’s the duty of the Brazilian government,” he said.