Panama’s Embera leaning on ancestral remedies to treat Covid-19

By Ana de Leon

Panama City, Aug 24 (efe-epa).- “All of our brothers and sisters who went to the hospital because of Covid-19 have died,” Gloria Samana, a botanist and member of Panama’s Ipeti Embera indigenous community, lamented while stirring curative leaves that bubbled rapidly on the surface of a boiling pot of water.

The sexagenarian, who recovered from a bout with the novel coronavirus thanks to traditional medicine, is preparing a natural concoction inside her stilt home made of wood and palm leaves.

The treatment this time is being prepared for her husband – Reinedio Casama, also a botanist – to protect him from a disease that already has claimed seven lives inside their small hamlet.

One of Panama’s seven indigenous groups, the Embera people live in an eastern region of the country located about four hours by car from the nation’s busy capital. Largely abandoned by the country’s health authorities, they have relied on their community’s traditional medicine to heal those who have contracted Covid-19.

“They come to do a swab test, but later there’s no follow-up and they don’t ask what our people need. They just come with their protective (gear) as if they were going to the moon, take samples and go away,” Sara Omi, president of the Embera General Congress of Alto del Bayano, a region in the Darien forests of Panama, told Efe.

Omi, a person of authority in Ipeti Embera and other Embera communities, said it only occurs to the health authorities to conduct an epidemiological sweep when individuals with other pathologies such as diabetes or hypertension go to the nearest clinic to get tested for the coronavirus.

She stressed that the Embera people do not reject Western medicine and want to work together with Panamanian authorities to obtain items of basic necessity during the pandemic, such as face coverings and hand-sanitizer gel.

In addition, the community must obtain water from a nearby river because their makeshift aqueduct has been damaged for months, making it difficult to heed health authorities’ calls for frequent hand-washing during the health emergency.

Official figures indicate there have been 25 confirmed coronavirus cases in Ipeti Embera, located in Alto del Bayano; only one of those cases remains active.

But Omi estimates that 98 percent of that community’s nearly 700 inhabitants have been infected, herself included, and simply have not been tested.

“We didn’t want to be part of the statistics, but rather to show proof that the Embera people have an alternative and can save lives amid the Covid-19 (pandemic) with our medicinal plants,” she said.

Samana, meanwhile, probes her garden and chooses plants that might help fend off the virus. With a homemade basket in hand, she looks earnestly at the leaves, closes her eyes and gives them a reason for breaking them off.

“Our plants are living things. You have to explain why you’re taking them,” said the botanist, who insists that all of the Covid-19 patients in her community who were treated with traditional medicine have recovered.

The virus entered the Embera communities in early April; no one knows the cause of that first infection, but the first coronavirus patient was one of the ethnic group’s “grandmothers.”

The woman was taken to a health center by decision of indigenous leaders but was not administered a swab test and was only given medicine to bring down her fever.

After she had showed no improvement a week later, the “grandmother” went back to the clinic a second time. She then returned to the community as an active coronavirus patient and was treated with traditional medicine.

“I was in bad, bad shape. I was crying; I said goodbye to my family. But after several days with those vapors my strength came back and the fever stopped,” said Horacia, a woman over the age of 60.

Under the protocol used by Embera botanists for curing and preventing Covid-19, patients first bathe in the Bayano River while leaves of the guanabana tree and a plant commonly known as “desbaratadora” are boiled for 25 minutes.

They then sit on the ground with a blanket over them and breathe in the vapors from the concoction until they’re “sweating heavily.” Finally, they consume a tea from that same hot water.

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