Not so long ago, during the 1960s and ’70s, indigenous peoples were purposely infected with highly contagious viruses. It was a widespread practice in central and northeastern Brazil. Artisanal miners and large landowners, not without the help of politicians, offered them clothes infected with smallpox and other diseases and poisoned their food supplies. The military dictatorship’s goal was to gain access to their coveted lands and natural resources. Their strategy, taking a page from Brazil’s initial colonization: the extermination of the country’s first inhabitants.
Indigenous groups have mobilized to raise awareness of the virus.
The current COVID-19 pandemic haunts these indigenous populations in particular, stressing the precarious conditions in which they live, bringing back the memory of those dark times and the possibility of genocide once more.
Coronavirus is “yet another plague produced by capitalist accumulation, therefore of political and economic origin and which now becomes a public health crisis,” the Association of Brazilian Indigenous Peoples (APIB in its acronym in Portuguese) wrote in a March 22 statement. “It is up to the state to provide measures to mitigate its accumulated debt to date with our peoples and communities.”
Four days earlier, the National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (FUNAI) suspended all authorizations to enter indigenous lands, except for individuals providing services considered essential. Indigenous groups and organizations related to them have mobilized to raise the awareness of both indigenous communities and nonindigenous people about the dangers of contagion.
On April 2, the first COVID-19 case among Brazil’s indigenous population was confirmed. A 20-year-old Kokama was infected in the state of Amazonas. As of April 12, there were already five additional deaths in indigenous areas.
According to public health physician Douglas Rodrigues, unlike what one might expect, a lack of immunological memory is not the biggest problem facing indigenous communities when it comes to the virus. Up until the 20th century, influenza epidemics were responsible for decimating millions of indigenous people as a result of their low immunity to diseases brought in from outside. However, notes Rodrigues, who has worked in the indigenous health field for more than 50 years, there should be no differences between them and nonindigenous people since COVID-19 is a new disease. No one has an immunological memory capable of alleviating it.
Why then is COVID-19 potentially a greater threat to indigenous peoples? The continuous historical negligence with which indigenous peoples in Brazil are treated. This, together with their way of life and geographic location, places them in a specific risk group. Their most obvious vulnerability factor is the lack of access to basic health services.
According to infectious disease physician Joel Gonzaga of Brazil’s Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI), a 15-year-old Yanomami boy who lived in the municipality of Alto Alegre, Roraima and succumbed to the virus had previously suffered from “malnutrition, anemia, repeated malaria and was treated last month for malaria falciparum.”
SESAI has few resources and limited infrastructure to deal with serious COVID-19 cases. In addition, a large number of indigenous populations live in isolated or difficult-to-access areas, hours or even days away from the nearest city. A lack of sanitation and clean water make it difficult to maintain hygiene.
Death rates from respiratory infections and chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension among indigenous people are also higher than that of the general population. Studies indicate that this is due, in addition to the factors already mentioned, to nutritional deficiencies.
Another risk factor in the context of COVID-19 is the communitarian way of life among the indigenous. Households might shelter entire families, which prevents isolation and implies sharing objects. Physical proximity is an inherent part of their routine.
As if all this were not enough, illegal mining continues to advance over indigenous lands. The Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), which monitors such activity, notes that the area degraded by mining in the Yanomami territory increased by 3 percent from February to March. One of these expansion areas is about three miles from the plantations of an isolated Yanomami group.
The murder of indigenous leaders, which has increased in number in the past few years amid open political discourse against these peoples, has given no respite. A Guajajara leader was fatally shot in the state of Maranhão on March 31. He is the fifth murdered since November within this ethnic group alone.
The Brazilian government’s negligence toward indigenous populations has always flouted national and international regulations and is unacceptable in the context of the historical debt it owes. However, now, it is even more serious. It is potentially genocidal.