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  HOME | Latin America (Click here for more)

Coronavirus Ravages Indigenous Communities in Latin America

BOGOTA – The COVID-19 pandemic is cutting a swath through indigenous communities in Latin America left vulnerable by poverty and long-standing official neglect.

The novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 335,000 people worldwide, represents a particular threat to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, as the health-care systems of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru buckle under the weight of caring for so many desperately ill people.

Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, said on Tuesday that while the official count of cases in Amazonia stood at 20,000, the true number was probably twice as high.

Given that many indigenous people dwell in isolated villages, the underreporting of infections is inevitable, she noted.

Brazil’s Amazon territory is already feeling the “disproportionate impact” described by Etienne.

As of May 19, according to the COIAB alliance of indigenous organizations in the Brazilian Amazon, there were 435 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 91 fatalities.

One of those fatalities was the cousin of Eladio Kokama, an indigenous leader in the village of Tabatinga.

“We are living this war with much difficulty and pain,” he told EFE. “Our country doesn’t have decent health care for all citizens, Indians or not,” he said, adding that his coronavirus-infected brother was intubated at the military hospital in Tabatinga.

Among the hardest-hit regions of Colombia is the province of Amazonas, with 1,775 cases and at least 73 fatalities.

There could be as many as 5,900 cases in the zone known as the Amazon Trapeze, where the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia said.

Home to more than 48,000 people, the Trapeze had no intensive care beds and only two ventilators at the start of the outbreak.

On Thursday, tribal leaders and human rights advocates said that they asked a court to order the Ecuadorian government to take coordinated action to stop the spread of COVID-19 among the Waorani people of the Amazon region after 73 members of indigenous communities tested positive for the coronavirus.

Waorani leaders spoke out last Saturday, after the first confirmed COVID-19 case among their people.

The infected person, a pregnant woman, was transported to a hospital in Quito, Waorani Resistance spokesman Oswaldo Nenquimo told EFE.

Andres Tapia, who leads an organization representing the indigenous nationalities in Ecuadorian Amazonia, said Thursday that the 73 people who have tested positive include members of the Quichua, Achuar, Siecopae, Waorani and Shuar nations.

“There are at least eight fatalities, five confirmed from coronavirus,” he said.

Tapia expressed concern about the decision by some Amazon jurisdictions to begin lifting the quarantine restrictions even as the disease continues to spread.

In Mexico, where 25.6 million people – 21.5 percent of the population – identify as indigenous, the disease has claimed 157 lives among the 68 recognized original nations.

Another 900 indigenous people have tested positive for COVID-19. The Shipibo-Konibo people of the Peruvian Amazon have lost 45 members of their community to the coronavirus.

Indigenous people in the region who contract the illness have fallen back on traditional remedies given the difficulty of access to modern medical care or even clean water, the head of the San Pablo de Tipishca Cocama Development and Conservation Association, Alfonso Lopez, said this week.

An area resident who wants to go to a hospital may have to travel two days to reach a town, he said.

Once at the hospital, he or she will find physicians “who aren’t trained, who are afraid to treat people with very high fevers and body aches,” Lopez said.

“Rather than die in the cities of Iquitos or Nauta where there are infected doctors and nurses,” the indigenous people of the area prefer to seek out cures from folk healers in their own communities, he said.

At the same time, their communities lack the means to practice basic hygiene.

“There is no water fit for human consumption in 50 population centers,” Lopez said. “We have to boil water to be able to wash ourselves.”


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