Amazon’s indigenous communities say coronavirus crisis exposing gov’t neglect

By Fernando Gimeno, Carla Samon and Klarem Valoyes

Lima/Sao Paulo/Bogota, May 8 (efe-epa).- For the indigenous populations of the Amazon rainforest, history is repeating itself. Whereas their communities were once ravaged by smallpox, influenza or measles, these ancestral peoples now find themselves highly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

But this time they are refusing to perish in silence.

“Our people are dying. It’s devastating,” the traditional patriarch of the Kokama indigenous group, Edney Samias, told Efe, warning that there is a risk of “genocide” unless emergency aid is provided to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Despite repeatedly warning of the risks they were facing and even though they sought to isolate themselves in their territories, the virus still has established a foothold.

In the Amazon region, a total of 40 deaths of indigenous people are attributed to Covid-19 and 679 other ancestral people have been infected with the coronavirus, according to figures from the Quito-based Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA).

In the remote triple-border region where the Amazon River flows and Brazil, Colombia and Peru meet, the virus is spreading readily person-to-person due to practically non-existent migratory controls.

The 38-year-old Samias lives in Tabatinga, a far-western Brazilian municipality that is home to about 65,000 people and is located in the Special Indigenous Health District of the Upper River Solimoes, which borders Colombia and Peru.

Tabatinga is located in Amazonas, the Brazilian state with the country’s biggest indigenous population (168,700 people, according to the 2010 census) and a region that with more than 10,000 confirmed cases and over 800 deaths has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19 in that South American country.

Samias recently joined three other Kokama leaders in signing a statement denouncing the “institutional racism” of Brazilian authorities and accusing them of negligence and insufficient measures to protect vulnerable indigenous communities.

The latest bulletin issued by the Brazilian Health Ministry’s Special Indigenous Health Secretariat indicates there have been 163 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 12 Covid-19-related deaths among the indigenous communities of Brazil, which is home to roughly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest.

The Special Indigenous Health District of the Upper River Solimoes has been the epicenter of the virus among that minority group, with 75 confirmed cases and seven deaths.

A key concern there is a lack of infrastructure for treating seriously ill Covid-19 patients, since the only intensive care unit (ICU) beds in Amazonas state are located in Manaus, the state capital, which is a four-day boat trip from Tapatinga.

A single street separates Tabatinga from Leticia, capital of the remote southeastern Colombian province of Amazonas, where 418 coronavirus cases have been reported in just 20 days.

Health infrastructure is sorely lacking in that province, which is home to just 80,000 inhabitants and does not have a single ICU for adults. Adding to the problems, a score of doctors in Leticia recently resigned due to a lack of personal protective equipment.

“We’re really worried. The pandemic has laid bare the reality and the neglect of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon,” the general coordinator of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, Julio Lopez, told Efe.

There is also concern that boats are still being allowed to arrive from Brazil, where the majority of coronavirus cases in Colombia’s Amazon region are believed to have originated.

Peru’s section of the triple-border region also has felt the impact of the coronavirus, with the region of Loreto – home to more than 100,000 indigenous people – having reported 1,666 coronavirus cases and 67 Covid-19-related deaths, including at least two indigenous fatalities.

In response, the country’s largest indigenous organization, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest has filed a complaint with the United Nations denouncing alleged neglect by the Peruvian state and warning about the “danger of ethnocide.”

“We have nowhere to go. We’re calling for them to send doctors,” Francisco Hernandez Cayetano, president of the Federation of Ticuna and Yagua Communities in the Lower Amazon, who inhabit the triple-border region, told Efe.

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