Protecting indigenous communities from coronavirus is 'a matter of our own self-preservation', say experts

Once the virus has entered any such community, it would become very difficult for the country's government to effectively curb the spread by issuing shelter-in-place guidelines to the tribes

                            Protecting indigenous communities from coronavirus is 'a matter of our own self-preservation', say experts
(Getty Images)

Indigenous communities in South America are either blockading their villages or fleeing to their traditional forest and mountain homes as they fear that their entire population might be wiped out if there is an outbreak of coronavirus in their secluded habitats.

At the time of writing this article, there were 12,240 confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil and 566 deaths. Unfortunately, Brazil is one of the major countries which houses indigenous groups and tribes in Latin America apart from countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. 

An indigenous woman in a village in the Amazon rainforest has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the first case reported among Brazil’s more than 300 tribes, the Health Ministry’s indigenous health service Sesai said.

In response to the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, indigenous communities and organizations in Ecuador declared on April 6 that they were launching an “Amazon Emergency Action Fund (COVID-19)” in order to raise urgent support internationally to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus into indigenous territories, thus  guaranteeing Indigenous peoples’ survival.

This would include providing food, supplies and medical attention, translating critical information into native languages, and lobbying the government for better planning and resourcing for the country’s indigenous population.

“We indigenous peoples don’t have guarantees for our lives in the midst of this nationwide and global crisis. If this pandemic reaches our communities, it will be the end of us as indigenous peoples. There are no hospitals near our communities, we don’t have access to information or basic services, and the geographic isolation of our territories means that this pandemic could be fatal for our people," Jaime Vargas, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), said. 

Members of the Munduruku indigenous tribe carry rocks on the Tapajos River as they prepare a protest against plans to construct a hydroelectric dam on the river in the Amazon rainforest on November 26, 2014 near Sao Luiz do Tapajos, Para State, Brazil  (Getty Images)

To understand how the virus threatens the communities of indigenous people, it is important to understand the ways in which the virus could find its way into these seemingly protected regions.

Scott Wallace, an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Connecticut told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that there were mainly two ways in which a virus could enter such vulnerable communities. 

"The main vector that would allow a virus to reach an isolated indigenous community and propagate there would be an intrusion from outside, whether from illegal loggers, gold prospectors, missionaries and the like. Conversely, the virus could reach the community if a member of that community were to venture out into a nearby settlement or city and unwittingly bring it back," he said, but added it was more likely that the virus would be brought in by an outsider. 

As a result, Brazilian indigenous rights activists have strongly urged the government to redouble efforts to keep intruders out of indigenous territories.

Once the virus has entered any of the communities, it would become very difficult for the country's government to effectively curb the spread by issuing shelter-in-place guidelines to the tribes. "There is no practical way for the government to relay the message of social distancing to uncontacted communities or those living in extreme isolation," Wallace said. 

Members of indigenous tribes from the Amazon basin attend a workshop on climate change ahead of the 'Fridays For Future' climate change mass protest on December 6, 2019 in Madrid, Spain (Getty Images)

Add to that the fact that the process of making treatment and other medicines available for such communities is almost an impossible task and it could spell disaster for the indigenous population. 

"The health care systems in the countries that still have isolated tribes, such as Peru or Brazil, are fragile even in the best of times. That’s especially true when it comes to the care of indigenous communities, which are widely scattered and difficult to reach. Logistics are extremely difficult when it comes to reaching some of these communities. Often there are no roads and no electricity, making the delivery of perishable vaccines all the more complicated," Wallace said. 

Lastly, Wallace stressed the importance of ensuring the safety of the indigenous population across the globe. 

"The tribes form an integral part of the enormous richness of human experience and knowledge. They relate to the natural world and the rich tapestry of life differently than we do. They possess knowledge and wisdom that have been lost to us in modern industrial society. Now more than ever, we need to preserve these diverse ways of seeing. Their preservation is a matter of our own self-preservation," he said.

"What kind of beings are we, what kind of society do we live in, if we do not see the inherent value in protecting their right to exist?" he asked. 

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