The Indigenous Communities of the Amazon and Their Fight Against COVID-19


Arianna Ertl

Fall Semester Internship 2020

English Major at West Chester University minoring in Psychology and Italian.

Learn more about Arianna Ertl

December 14, 2020

The Indigenous Communities of the Amazon and Their Fight Against COVID-19


The COVID-19 pandemic caught the world by surprise, sweeping across countries in only weeks, leaving no part of the world safe. The news provides daily coverage of international COVID-19 statistics; however, it rarely mentions  the people of indigenous communities and their perilous struggle with the pandemic. While COVID-19 has been a difficult adjustment for people around the world, the indigenous communities suffering in the Amazon have been affected in especially heartbreaking ways. Living in often unsanitary conditions with outsiders infiltrating their lands, and minimal support from their government, these indigenous peoples are not only losing their families but also their leaders and their culture. 

“Peru and Brazil are home to many of the Amazonian indigenous people who live to protect their beloved rainforest. Peru has reached a death toll of over 30,000 with almost 740,000 confirmed cases, and Brazil has 133,000 deaths with over 4 million confirmed cases.”

Corona Tracker, 2020

South America is an epicenter for the novel Coronavirus. Peru and Brazil, in particular, are home to many of the Amazonian indigenous people who live to protect their beloved rainforest. Peru has reached a death toll of over 30,000 with almost 740,000 confirmed cases, and Brazil has 133,000 deaths with over 4 million confirmed cases. (Corona Tracker, 2020). A dangerous factor is that many of the people living in crowded cities are fleeing to the countryside, inevitably infecting the defenseless indigenous population of the Andean Cloud and Amazon Rainforests. 

Since 1999 ACEER has worked with the Ese’Eja people, a hunter-gatherer society in the Peruvian Amazon’s Madre de Dios region includes the three town of Infierno, Palma Real, and Sonene. The Ese’Eja people are highly susceptible to COVID-19 and have suffered through pandemics such as the Spanish Flu that decimated their people with a 90% mortality rate. Their communities have continuously experienced illness introduced by outsiders encroaching on their ancestral land. With a lack of resources and holistic lifestyle these communities are not equipped to handle COVID-19 on their own. Their traditional healthcare consists of medical plants and shamanic knowledge (Cox, 2017). These practices are one of the only solutions indigenous people have, and, unfortunately, they only offer symptom management and do not control the spread of the virus. Making the situation even more dire, much of the traditional healing knowledge was lost when the last Ese’Eja shaman died from COVID. Little help is forthcoming from local government-run health clinics, many of which are closed or poorly staffed.

Other factors have further compounded the The Ese’Eja people’s plight and their vulnerability to COVID. They live in remote locations, resulting in a great distance between their community and the hospital in Puerto Maldonado. The hospital is more focused on meeting the demands of local citizens and is poorly equipped to handle the medical needs of indigenous people—especially as the COVID numbers grow. As of August 2020, the Madre de Dios Region has had 5,984 confirmed cases, 270 of which were fatal. In addition, the Santa Rosa Hospital in Puerto Maldonado currently has 31 patients in the COVID Immediate Care Unit (Dios, 2020). Other Peruvian indigenous groups such as the Mai’Juna and Yagua have also dealt with these issues. Their nearby city Iquitos has a poor health care system and a reliance on makeshift hospitals resulting in every 6 out of 10 people potentially being infected (Noguera, 2020). Since both indigenous groups live in the rainforest, they must deal with the distance between their communities and the hospital as well.                                           

Every issue that the Ese’Eja has faced during this pandemic—their location, poor health care, lack of resources, and more—is relevant to all the indigenous communities in the Amazon. For example, in the Leticia area of the Colombian Amazon, the Muinane are also struggling to receive adequate health care Like other indigenous communities, in addition to poor health care, location is also a problem for the Muinane. Unlike the Ese’Eja, they live in Southern Columbia. However, due to their close proximity to struggling countries such as Peru and Brazil, they have experienced the effects of the pandemic. Peru has become a hot spot for coronavirus cases, and Brazil has suffered due to their government’s—particularly, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s—ignoring advice on how to contain the spread of the virus (Taj, 2020). With many citizens of both countries fleeing to Columbia, it was only a matter of time before the Leticia area experienced an outbreak. In order to contain the spread, the Muinane people are wearing masks and staying at home in the rainforest. If some show symptoms, they may make the journey to a larger town to visit a hospital. They no longer rely on the use of traditional medicine.

While the Ese’Eja and the Muinane can social distance due to their remote location, indigenous groups like the Shipibo do not have that luxury. The Shipibo are not exclusively city–based, as they spread across the entire Amazon (some dominate rural areas in the central rainforest of Peru), but many do live in cities such as Pucallpa and  Peru’s capital, Lima. The Shipibo people in Amazonia have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with 80% of their population showing symptoms (Galdos, 2020). It’s not hard to see why, as they are historically not taken into account by the national health system and are constantly suffering from various health issues such as pneumonia, diabetes, infections and anemia. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Shipibo were not worried, as they did not have any confirmed cases. Shipibo artist and activist Olinda Silvano stated, “As long as there is nothing happening here, we need to stay calm. The more you think you are weak, the faster you are attacked by illness” (CTGN America, 2020). Silvano’s community lives in Lima, Peru, and their settlement is right between highways and the Ucayali River, which causes issues when it comes to social distancing. Her approach to the issue did not work since the Shipibo, including Silvano herself, were eventually hit hard due to lack of space in their settlement, their poor health care system, and lack of access to clean water. Once the community was affected, they were unable to get quick access to medical care, resulting in many deaths in the community.

The issue with healthcare services are Shipibo clinics are not fully staffed, the conditions they work in are not ideal (they work for 12-18 hours in extreme heat), and many patients are too weak to even get to the hospital. Dr. Ricardo Munante, who is in charge of the Covid Ward at the Pucallpa Hospital, has stated, “It’s been very hard to see people dying…To see people asking for help and not being able to do anything” (Galdos, 2020). To help, ACEER board member John Easterling, an expert in Amazonian medicinal plants, worked with the Shipibo to create what he calls Virus Defense. “It is plant blend consisting of Uña de Gato, Camu Camu, Chanca Piedra and Chinchona bark, John stated. “This is a ready to go mix so the Shipibo can make tea for protection and treatment. He noted that while Virus Defense is not a cure, it does support the immune system, has high doses of Vitamin C, and provides anti-inflamatory properties to help people recover. According to the government, the Shipibo people have 281 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 147 Covid-related deaths, although this is almost certainly underestimated as it does not include information from indigenous organizations and more remote villages.

Indigenous communities through South America are all suffering from this pandemic. As Peru continues to fight in the struggle against Coronavirus, their neighboring country Brazil, also home to hundreds of indigenous communities, are fighting their own battle with the virus. Brazil has the second highest rates of Coronavirus following the United States. “While the mortality rate is about 6.4% among the Brazilian population, that number rises to 12.6% among indigenous populations” (Saplakoglu 2020). The most prominent factors to these outbreaks are due to poor access of healthcare services and a lack of initiative from Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. 

The position of the President against state government efforts has put the people of Brazil including their indigenous people at a higher risk for infection and deaths. “More than 90 percent of Brazil’s cities lack intensive care units, and more than half didn’t have ventilators until February, according to a study by Fiocruz, a government health research institute. Some hospital systems have come close to running out of intensive care beds” (Andreoni, 2020). It came as a surprise that Brazil was not better prepared for the virus, considering the country had months to analyze the effects of the primary countries infected with Coronavirus. However, much of these setbacks are due to its president’s dismissing the severity of the virus and not supporting social-distancing measures. President Bolsonaro himself tested positive for Coronavirus while continuing to be in close proximity with others. The Ministry of Health has been focused on the production of hydroxychloroquine to be prescribed to Coronavirus patients. This drug has been proven to be ineffective and in fact can be dangerous. This is an idea President Bolsonaro got from President Trump, leading his country to follow the United States in the highest cases of Coronavirus.

 A major issue with the spread of this virus is a lack of testing and healthcare services for lower- class citizens and indigenous communities. The Amazon region is accustomed to negligence from its government, and it is not any different with the rise of COVID. The healthcare workers sent to work with the indigenous people were themselves carriers of the virus and have infected the people of the Amazon. “On June 4, the federal indigenous health service, known by the acronym SESAI, acknowledged that four of its workers tested positive for the virus while deployed to a Kanamari tribal village in Javari Valley Indigenous Territory in far-western Brazil” (Wallace 2020). The Javari Valley is home to the largest population of indigenous communities in the world, known for their isolation and minimal contact with others. Isolated communities such as the Korubo are at a higher risk of infection because they have not built an immune system to defend against outside pathogens. This factor makes it essential to take necessary precautions to make sure COVID helpers are not spreading the virus. These precautions include government support in COVID testing, sanitary measures, and restriction of outsiders invading the territory.       

 Extermination of their people is a huge concern for the indigenous people of Brazil. In the past months, deforestation has risen in the Amazon. The indigenous communities of the Amazon face a dual threat: Covid and the rise in deforestation of their lands. Deforestation has risen 60% in the last year (Wallace, 2020). Not only are indigenous people being infected by the workers, the loggers and illegal goldminers are bringing the virus to the people and contaminating indigenous land. Goldminers use tools that poison the natural resources the indigenous people rely on. A recent article covering the increasing goldmining issues in Brazil, sheds light on the severity of goldmining, “Mercury is an essential tool in the process, used to collect and purify gold traces found in the soil. Its toxicity seeps into the soil, air and water. Maritime ecologies have collapsed. Indigenous communities have been poisoned. Years after mining, the earth remains barren and lifeless” (McCoy, 2020). The outsiders tearing apart the Amazon are an environmental and human threat, being doubled by COVID. Brazil is losing a generation of indigenous leaders, and this loss creates fear for their survival. The indigenous people of Brazil are necessary for the future of environmental health. The Supreme Court of Brazil has affirmed protection of the indigenous communities to provide better health services and sanitary measures; however, they have been reluctant in setting a deadline for timber poachers and miners. These outside threats contradict the safety measures set in place. This virus has greatly affected the future of indigenous communities by killing chiefs, elders, and healers whom the people rely on to pass down knowledge and keep their culture alive.

The people of indigenous communities are heartbroken by the destruction caused by the pandemic. They can celebrate only half a victory with the Supreme Court of Brazil’s ruling and the resulting measures the government have set in place to protect them. On the day the Court ruled, the people of the Upper Xingu territory received devastating news. “In a tragic coincidence, a prominent indigenous leader Chief Aritana Yawalapiti of the Upper Xingu territory died of the virus on the day of the ruling, according to his nephew Kaiulu Yawalapiti. “My heart is in pieces, bleeding,”” (CNN, 2020). On July 22, the chief was admitted to the ICU for breathing problems. His son Tapi Yawalapiti told CNN that his area lacked the medical supplies and resources to fight against the virus. “Covid-19 spreads very fast, the whole community is sick, children, the young, the elderly. We are being neglected by the Brazilian government, they are not helping us enough and it seems that they want to decimate us” (Yawalapiti, 2020).  Not only did the death of the Chief hurt his family, it affects the entire community. The elderly are the keepers of knowledge, language, tradition, and culture. These indigenous communities are losing their loved ones and their nation. 

Between remote locations, poor access to health care, and unsanitary living conditions, indigenous groups have been struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 Pandemic. However, some people are making sure they get help during this time of crisis. For example, the ACEER Foundation has a longstanding program dedicated to helping the Ese’Eja community, and it has continued to work with them during the pandemic. In July, ACEER transferred $10,000 from the Foundation managed Community Development Fund to the Ese’Eja community, so they could buy food and medicine. In addition, long-time ACEER board members John Easterling and Olivia Newton-John Easterling are also financially supporting “La Voz De La Selva” (The Voices of the Jungle), which helps give medical support to the Shipibo. John and Olivia just donated $7,000 to provide food and supplies to about 300 Shipibo living in the village of Porvenir.  Finally, ACEER is currently working with FENMAD, a federation in Madre de dios that defends the rights of Amazonian indigenous groups, including the Ese’Eja. 

 The grief and neglect that has struck the indigenous communities of the Amazon is cruel. These people should be cherished and protected for their commitment to keeping the land healthy. Their home in the Amazon affects us globally. We need the Amazon rainforest; therefore, we need the indigenous people to protect it. With every day we do not take measures to protect the indigenous communities, we push them towards extermination. The government forces in South America and in the United States must see the value in the Amazonian indigenous communities  before it is too late. Making a donation now to ACEER is a simple and direct way to help the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. While we are all struggling during these times, it is important to acknowledge and help those who do not have the same advantages, and who are in the fight of their lives.

Works Cited 

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