'History is dying': Brazil's Indigenous urgently need Covid vaccines, protection, groups say

Brazil needs to act urgently as Covid-19 is causing devastating – and irreparable – losses to the country’s indigenous communities, according to an entirely new report.

A report from two human rights organizations, The Observatory, an international group, and Justiça Global, a Brazilian group, point to the country’s overburdened public health infrastructure, the lack of a coherent and strict Covid-19 policy by President Jair Bolsonaro, and other geographic and government challenges that threaten vulnerable communities such as indigenous peoples.

“We saw the end of indigenous peoples as if literally the last members of certain indigenous communities were dying, and there are no successors,” said Raphaela Lopes, attorney at Justiça Global.

After the USA and India, Brazil is one of the three countries with the highest number of Covid-19 infections over 11 million confirmed cases and more than 268,000 deaths since Thursday.

Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by the virus. Experts even warned at the start of the pandemic that it was “going to be catastrophic”.

According to the human rights group, about 305 indigenous tribes represent about 900,000 people in Brazil Survival International. Half live outside the Amazon, but Brazil is also uniquely home to a large number of indigenous people who have had no outside human contact.

There have been 50,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and over 900 deaths among indigenous communities Articulation of indigenous peoples of Brazilwho persecute and stand up for the country’s indigenous movement.

Those who died include those involved in healthcare, traditional healing, politics and education, as well as chiefs and leaders of their own tribes.

The late Aruka Juma from the Brazilian state of Rondonia.Courtesy Comunica Kaninde

Aruká Juma, the last male indigenous leader of the Juma people, an 18th century community, died of Covid-19 complications in February. His grandson, Bitate Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, from the village of Jamari, Rondônia state, who represents two indigenous communities, including Juma, confirmed his death.

Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, 20, shared memories of the time he and his family had spent with his grandfather. He remembered how his grandfather taught his brother how to make a belt to represent the Juma tribe.

“I think it’s one of my last memories of him that I have because the last time I saw him and thought I’d see him again,” he said. “Unfortunately it doesn’t happen.”

The late Aruka Juma from the Brazilian state of Rondonia.Courtesy Comunica Kaninde

Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau said government support for the agribusiness on the environment and failure to protect indigenous land contributed to the situation.

“I think that’s what the federal government wants to downsize the indigenous tribes and indigenous areas for the agribusiness that are relying more and more on deforestation, ranching and exports each time. And we have a major challenge to counteract that.” he said.

Recommendations for the government include improving access to water for people in precarious living conditions, making Covid-19 health information more transparent, and offering more test kits and strategies to protect vulnerable communities. Lopes said the government has not yet responded to the report.

The late Aruka Juma from the Brazilian state of Rondonia.Courtesy Comunica Kaninde

Bolsonaro’s office did not go directly to the report in response to an investigation, but several government agencies outlined their Covid-19 strategies for indigenous communities.

The Department of Health’s special secretariat for Indigenous Health said it has 14,200 health professionals, 47 percent of whom are indigenous, to support indigenous communities. The government said it provides essential services for Covid-19 detection and prevention, including transportation resources, food distribution, testing, treatment and access to vaccinations.

Geographic and State Challenges

The majority of the indigenous areas are located in the Amazon region, according to Amazon International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, a human rights group. About 13.8 percent of the land in Brazil is reserved for the indigenous people. The Amazon forest and its indigenous territories stretch across nine northern states, including the Amazon and neighboring Rondônia, where the descendants of Aruká Juma live.

For some indigenous communities, the remoteness of the area makes it difficult to access medical care, making it difficult to treat Covid-19 patients.

“To get to Juma Land you have to leave Porto Velho, the capital of the state of Rondônia. It takes five hours by car and two hours by boat to reach the village,” said Ivaneide Bandeira Cardozo, a board member of the Environmental protection group Kaninde, describes the distance some indigenous people have to travel to reach a hospital.

The history of indigenous communities with pandemics like measles has resulted in widespread death, according to Cardozo. Indigenous peoples in particular do not have the same immunity to pathogens as the rest of the Brazilian population because they live in more isolated communities. the report says.

To limit indigenous communities’ exposure to the virus, the National Indian Foundation said in a statement that it has delivered about 600,000 food baskets and put in about 300 sanitary barriers to prevent non-indigenous peoples from entering their areas. It has also partnered with authorities “to curb illegal activities such as illegal logging, mining, and predatory hunting and fishing”.

The Brazilian Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights said it had delivered 326,527 food baskets to indigenous communities to help prevent infection and promote social isolation.

Vaccination efforts

On January 17th, Brazil began introducing vaccinations that included and prioritized the indigenous peoples. However, experts are concerned that the operations are not going quickly enough.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement that indigenous communities are among the priority groups and that they “already have all the doses necessary to immunize more than 410,000 people”. It is said that 270,000 of them were vaccinated with the first dose of one of the two-dose vaccines, and 152,000 were already given the second dose.

However, areas like Karão Jaguaribaras in the state of Ceará outside of the Amazon have not had access to vaccinations, as is their country not legally recognized. In addition, it is reported that indigenous people living in cities have not been included in the priority groups, which is threatening spread the virus.

Influential religious groups are also seen as threats to advancement in education and vaccinations after Covid-19. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches across the Amazon have been sources of misinformation by “linking the vaccine to things of the devil,” Cardozo said.

An online campaign aimed at indigenous communities tries to promote vaccinations through the hashtag #VacinaParente, which translates as “vaccinate relatives”. In one example Cardozo shared, a local non-profit based in Manaus, Amazonas state, posted a photo of a colleague who was vaccinated to share with groups in other parts of Brazil.

Human rights activists say protecting communities is an urgent priority.

“History is dying in a way,” Lopes said. “It’s very sad what we saw here in Brazil.”

Yan Boechat reported from São Paulo.

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