Coronavirus Threatens Indigenous Amazonian Tribes

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SEATTLE, Washington — COVID-19 is ravishing almost every country in the world; however, the deadly virus affects some groups more heavily than others. Recently there has been a lot of concern as the coronavirus has reached the Amazon Rainforest where much of the population is made up of native peoples. In these areas, the coronavirus threatens to wipe out entire populations of indigenous Amazonian tribes. With it, it would take irreplaceable lives, knowledge and history.

A Hot Spot Arises in Colombia

Indigenous Amazonian tribes make up much of the population of Leticia, Colombia, which is 50,000 people. Leticia is an Amazonian port city that borders both Peru and Brazil. The town has no roads connecting it to other parts of the country, and flights very rarely arrive there. Despite all of this, however, Leticia also has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country of Colombia. Around 70% of the 2,000 infected people in Leticia have died.

Much of the surrounding Amazon in Colombia is very sparsely populated. Because of this, the economy of Leticia depends heavily on trade with surrounding Amazonian cities in Brazil and Peru. That is how they get most of their food. This trading system has likely led to the spread of COVID-19 throughout the rainforest since Brazil is one of the worst affected countries on the planet, second only to the United States.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that there are only two hospitals in Leticia. Both became quickly overrun as more and more people fell ill. The public hospital was struggling even before the COVID-19 outbreak reached the city. In April, 30 healthcare workers chose to resign in protest of the conditions in the hospital and because the hospital had not given them a paycheck in months.

It is likely that COVID-19 will continue to spread throughout the Amazon Rainforest where an estimated one million people reside. As the disease spreads, more towns may suffer the same fate as Leticia. Many Amazonian cities lack medical supplies or knowledge about the disease; some residents do not have internet access and know very little about COVID-19 until it is upon them. The devastation this could cause will lead not only to the loss of thousands of lives but also to the loss of indigenous cultures.

Fighting COVID-19 in for Indigenous Amazonian Tribes

Though the situation in the Amazons is dire, the government in Colombia is taking steps to try and ease the burden of the disease. Federal authorities have taken over Leticia’s public hospital in an attempt to increase its effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic. This has led to the return of some of the workers who had previously quit. The President of Colombia, Ivan Duque, also issued an order that prohibited the residents of towns like Leticia from moving freely over the border into Peru and Brazil. Duque also announced that he planned on sending armed troops to guard the border of Brazil and Colombia in an attempt to keep the Coronavirus contained.

In July, The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) began working with the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) to help Indigenous Amazonian tribes fight COVID-19. Together, they are putting pressure on governments to provide more resources to indigenous areas. The PAHO began offering free webinars to help healthcare workers improve preparation and response efforts. More than 60 webinars and nine virtual classes are available in both English and Spanish. Classes include “psychological aid in emergencies, clinical management of severe acute respiratory infections […] occupational health and safety and emerging respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.”

Indigenous people comprise the majority of the population in the Amazon Rainforest. The spread of COVID-19 across the border of Brazil and into Colombia poses a huge threat to these populations. It has the potential to wipe them out completely. The loss of these populations would be devastating in terms of life, knowledge and history. However, as governments put more protective measures in place, hopefully, that the rate of infection in indigenous Amazonian tribes will slow.

Paige Musgrave
Photo: Flickr

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