As Covid-19 Reaches the Amazon, Indigenous People Are at Risk

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Since his 2018 election, Jair Bolsonaro has pushed for opening up the Amazon to mining and making Brazil’s indigenous population less like “animals in a zoo.” Now the government is helping those same communities seal themselves off from the outside world in a bid to hinder the coronavirus.

As the vast state of Amazonas becomes one of Brazil’s virus hotspots, many indigenous leaders have blocked the entrances into their territories and, with support from federal police, are preventing passage. The number of Covid-19 cases has continued to climb all the same in those communities, which are spread widely across the country.

Those who live deep in the Amazon are especially vulnerable to coronavirus due to the difficulties inherent in being far from an urban center. Requirements for maintaining sanitary conditions — including running water and sanitizing supplies — are often lacking and, for some, the closest medical help is an overburdened, ill-equipped hospital days away by boat.

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“Agents are keeping the communities isolated, distributing portions of pantry goods and doing whatever possible to impede both indigenous people from leaving their tribes and outsiders from entering the communities,” Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who coordinates Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency, said in a text message Thursday. “Government workers who deal directly with indigenous people are using personal protection equipment such as masks and gloves.”

Yet the government’s efforts to shield indigenous people from the worst ravages of the virus contrast with the president’s public disregard for their culture, and his eagerness to integrate them into broader society through, for instance, the introduction of a bill that allows for mining in indigenous territories.

Outsider Risk

Emboldened by that stance, wildcat miners and illegal loggers caused deforestation in the Amazon region to jump 51% in the first quarter of this year, compared with the first three months of 2019. That increase happened in part because the government shifted its focus to fighting the pandemic, according to Vice President Hamilton Mourao. “When one runs to one side, the group that wants to commit illegalities takes advantage,” he said on Wednesday.

Read More: Brazil to Boost Amazon Forest Oversight as Deforestation Jumps

Indigenous leaders worry those wildcatters are bringing the virus closer to their communities, but even medical workers sent to help indigenous communities have transmitted the illness.

Money intended to help informal workers could also represent a threat to indigenous communities. In order to cash and spend the 600 real ($115) emergency payment provided by the government over the next three months, eligible members of the community will have to travel to the nearest town, quite possibly by crowded boat, mingling with people along the way and in lines at the banks and grocery stores that offer that service. So far, 23 million Brazilians, including 41,000 indigenous people, have registered to receive the monthly stipend, nicknamed coronavoucher.

Read More: Chaotic Crowds Vying for Aid Risk Spreading Virus in Brazil

Even indigenous traditions regarding the dead are now a challenge. In the case of death from coronavirus, the government’s isolation policy undermines grieving and burial rituals, which may include dancing and handling the body before it’s burned and turned into ashes.

“The Yanomami have a ritual for death and burial,” Damares Alves, minister for women, family and human rights, told journalists on Monday, referring to the virus-related death of a 15-year-old boy of the Yanomami tribe. “How can we explain to the leaders that this body is not going to the village?”

Brazil’s 800,000 indigenous citizens are scattered among 690 territories covering about 13% of Brazil’s land, almost all of them in the Amazon region. Efforts to demarcate their land have often set off violent confrontations, with many being killed by land grabbers in far-flung locations, sometimes out of the government’s sight.

Amazon Hotspot

Most of Brazil’s cases of Covid-19 have been reported in the southeastern states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. But more than 2,000 miles away, Amazonas has become a hotspot for the outbreak. With more than 1,800 cases and 145 deaths reported there, the hospitals of Manaus, the state’s capital, are being overwhelmed by the pandemic.

The principal Manaus hospital where Covid-19 cases are being treated announced April 10 that it had reached “maximum operational capacity.” A video filmed in another of the city’s hospitals showed covered-up bodies alongside patients. At least 57 health workers have contracted the virus in the state, and on April 8 the state secretary of health was replaced. On April 12, the mayor of Manaus opened an emergency field hospital with 18 beds; it was inaugurated with a prayer.

Even those living in towns -- around 60% of Brazil’s indigenous population do -- face challenges.

“They are historically at the back of the line,” said Douglas Rodrigues, a doctor with the Preventative Medicine Department of the Federal University of Sao Paulo who has worked with isolated indigenous communities in the Amazon for more than 50 years. “And now that the line is long and the bottleneck is even worse, they will have a very hard time accessing hospitals.”

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