SEATTLE, Washington — Latin America is home to approximately 42 million indigenous people. While the indigenous population accounts for only 8% of Latin America’s population, 17% of indigenous people live in extreme poverty and 43% of indigenous households are impacted by material poverty. Nearly 50% of Latin America’s indigenous peoples now live in urban areas but they often live in conditions that are less sanitary and less secure compared to their non-indigenous counterparts. These high rates of poverty, coupled with geographic, socio-economic and political marginalization, make healthcare significantly less accessible among the region’s indigenous communities. The lack of access to health services has sparked growing concern and outrage among indigenous peoples and human rights advocates as indigenous populations combat COVID-19.
COVID-19 in Numbers
According to the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, accurate data on COVID-19 infection rates among indigenous peoples are difficult to attain and are not yet available. Current estimates are variable. The Amazon Center for Anthropology and Practical Application (CAAAP) estimates that there were 3,217 COVID-19 cases and 206 deaths in the Peruvian Amazon on May 1, which increased to 4,807 cases with 245 confirmed deaths on May 13. Other approximations from Peru suggest that indigenous peoples face a COVID-19 mortality rate of 16%, which is between five to eight times higher than the national average. Brazil’s Articulation of Indigenous Peoples (APIB) estimates the COVID-19 mortality rate is twice as high among Brazil’s indigenous population.
Pre-existing living and health conditions have exacerbated problems and continue to create roadblocks as the indigenous population combat COVID-19. In northeastern Peru, malnutrition, anemia and diabetes are common among Amazonian indigenous populations. Environmental contamination, often from non-indigenous peoples’ mining activities and oil extraction on indigenous territory, has also made it common for heavy metals to be found in indigenous peoples’ blood, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Indigenous people also traditionally live in tight-knit communities where the virus can easily spread from person-to-person.
“This is a longtime national narrative,” Berlin Diques, a regional president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), said. “This is the cruel reality of Amazonia. In our villages, if one of us got contaminated, it can turn quickly into a drama.”
The Indigenous Rally for Change
Indigenous communities and indigenous rights organizations are rallying together to change these statistics and encourage government action, but this process has been challenging, particularly as indigenous peoples’ territorial rights are contested and stripped. At the Brazil-Venezuela border, the Yanomami indigenous people have launched a campaign to remove 20,000 gold miners from the Yanomami territory, who are continuing to operate despite the pandemic. At Peru’s border with Ecuador, the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation, which represents 85 Wampis indigenous communities, filed a complaint against GeoPark’s general manager. The complaint states that the Chilean petroleum company has maintained oil operations in Wampis communities without performing COVID-19 tests on workers.
Lizardo Cauper Pezo, AIDESEP’s president, reportedly called for “immediate concrete action to support Peru’s Indigenous communities, including that the Peruvian government stop all extractive industries in territories and provide immediate public health resources.”
Organizations Assist Indigenous Communities
Indigenous peoples’ territorial integrity is directly tied to their food security. With the loss of their lands comes the loss of their traditional and often land-based livelihoods, increasing poverty among indigenous populations. At the same time, because many indigenous tribes live in forests along country borders, they rely on border cities for food and medical care. There is growing concern that movement to and from border cities to indigenous communities will perpetuate the spread of COVID-19 among indigenous peoples. In Peru, AIDESEP encouraged at least 2000 communities to enforce Peru’s national lockdown, working to close entry to indigenous communities for non-residents so as to help indigenous populations combat COVID-19.
As people in organizations and communities work to contain COVID-19, they are simultaneously working to share valuable information about the virus with indigenous populations. Hashtags like “#EmergenciaIndígena” (“Indigenous emergency”) and “#YoMeQuedoEnMiComunidad” (“I stay in my community”) have been used to disseminate information about the virus and show support for quarantine measures. The Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the East, for example, is using social media to teach communities about measures that can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. In countries like Ecuador, indigenous organizations and some government agencies have translated public health guidance to indigenous languages and are using social media to distribute the information.
The Pan American Health Organization
While it is an important first step, making information regarding COVID-19 accessible to indigenous populations is not enough on its own. Practices like regular handwashing can be a challenge when water supply is limited and social distancing is often difficult in communities and households where space is limited. In an effort to face and tackle these challenges, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced that it is working with the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) to respond to the pandemic in indigenous communities.
The PAHO-COICA joint efforts aim to create “roadmaps” for a pandemic response through collaboration between groups such as indigenous organizations and ministries of health, according to Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, PAHO’s assistant director. To help indigenous populations combat COVID-19, PAHO and COICA are encouraging governments to foster increased and strengthened health care services throughout the Amazon, including improved access to medical supplies, tests, treatments and vaccines, when they become available.
Efforts like those of PAHO, COICA and other indigenous and human rights organizations, are essential to bring awareness to the impact of COVID-19 among indigenous communities. While communities still lack support and resources, particularly with respect to healthcare and land, the collaboration between indigenous communities, organizations and governments across South America, is imperative in the fight against COVID-19. By increasing access to healthcare, sanitation and other essential services, governments can help protect indigenous people.
– Zoe Engels