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Uncontacted tribes could be exterminated by Covid-19

A stark warning from Brazilian indigenous leader Celia Xakriaba


This article was first published on 6 April 2020 by Newsweek. You can read the original article here.

The COVID-19 pandemic could “wipe out” entire indigenous populations in Brazil, experts who have described the situation a “matter of life and death” have warned.

Survival International, a human rights organization which advocates for indigenous, tribal and uncontacted peoples, warned in a statement on Friday: “The protection of indigenous lands around the globe is critical to prevent thousands of tribal people dying from coronavirus.”

As indicated in the map by Statista below, 11,281 of the over 1.2 million people diagnosed with COVID-19 are in Brazil, according to Johns Hopkins University. A total of 487 people in the country have so far died.

Cases were first confirmed in industrialized São Paulo, but the virus has since spread to indigenous territories in the Amazon Basin, BBC News reported. The first indigenous person to catch the new coronavirus was in Amazonas state. According to the outlet, respiratory illnesses are the biggest killers of native communities.

Survival International suggested such groups were partly at risk because Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro had encouraged “fundamentalist missionaries” to reach out to uncontacted Amazonian tribes “who lack resistance to outside diseases.” One missionary organization named New Tribes Mission plans to get in touch with those in the Javari Valley, which according to Survival International has the world’s greatest concentration of uncontacted tribes

Gold miners, ranchers and loggers have also encroached on the territories of tribes, including uncontacted communities, the organization warned.

Asked what percentage of Brazil’s indigenous peoples would be affected by COVID-19, Jonathan Mazower, communications director of Survival International, told Newsweek: “[It’s] impossible to put a number on it, but there is certainly a real risk of many tribes being completely wiped out, as has happened many times in the past.

“Uncontacted tribes are particularly vulnerable, as they lack immunity to outside diseases. But many others are also vulnerable: those who have only recently had contact with outside society very often already suffer chronic health conditions, especially respiratory diseases like flu and common colds, which weaken their immune system. And in countless communities across Brazil indigenous people have little access to health care at the best of times.”

Mazower said that not enough is being done to help such communities, and called on cuts to the indigenous healthcare service, SESAI, to be “reversed urgently.”

“Just as important is the removal of outsiders from the territories of tribes like the Yanomami [who live on the border between between Venezuela and Brazil] and the Awá [of the eastern Amazon rainforest] whose lands have been invaded by gold miners and loggers—during the pandemic, this is an obvious route in for the coronavirus to otherwise remote communities.”

Mazower said: “uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. The coronavirus pandemic shows everyone just how dangerous new diseases can be. For them, the protection of their territories is now a matter of life and death.”

Brazilian indigenous leader Celia Xakriaba said in a statement released by Survival International: “We’re especially concerned about uncontacted tribes, because coronavirus could mean the extermination of these people.

“We realize that the pandemic is a crisis for all humanity, but we know that Brazilians won’t be completely exterminated. For us indigenous peoples though, it represents a real threat of extermination.”

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Dr. Sofia Mendonça, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo who coordinates an indigenous peoples’ health project in the Amazon rainforest’s Xingu river basin, told BBC News: “There is an incredible risk of the virus spreading across the native communities and wiping them out.”

Cases of infectious disease spreading among such communities in the past, such as a 1960s measles outbreak, have caused “chaos,” said Mendonça.

“Everyone gets sick, and you lose all the old people, their wisdom and social organization,” she said.

Mendonça said some groups will gather materials for hunting and fishing and establish smaller camps in the hopes of remerging after the pandemic is over.

However, some communities, such as those in the Amazonian municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, have stopped gathering food and instead must venture into cities to claim government programs to survive, BBC News reported.

Marivelton Baré, president of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro (Foirn), told BBC News food needs to be taken to villages so people aren’t exposed to the virus.

Also highlighting concerns with groups such as loggers, Sarah Shenker, a campaigner for uncontacted tribes at Survival International said in a statement: “If their lands are properly protected from outsiders, uncontacted tribes should be relatively safe from the coronavirus pandemic.”

But she added: “Where invaders are present, coronavirus could wipe out whole peoples. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Shenker expressed concerns the virus could easily spread among other indigenous people who live communally, and they would struggle to be treated as they live far from hospitals.

Providing context for the situation, Antonio Ioris, an expert in social and environmental justice and marginalized groups at Cardiff University, told Newsweek: “a significant percentage, perhaps more than half of many indigenous communities, are likely to be seriously affected now, especially because of the high levels of malnutrition, insalubrity and lack of preventive medicine, associated with widespread unemployment, political demoralization, undermining of traditional practices and indigenous medicine, and shocking forms of prejudice.”

Ioris argued: “The indigenous peoples in Brazil are already being wiped out by the deliberate action of the Bolsonaro mis-administration, which has combined the unconditional defense of agribusiness, mining and logging activities with incentives to environmental degradation and a large-scale decommissioning of public services.”

He went on to state that the COVID-19 pandemic “is not a microbiological risk or a medical question only, it is a political problem, caused by cumulative mistakes made by the national government and by a public health sector increasingly undermined by a commercial and financial rationality.”

The indigenous health ministry SESAI told BBC News it had given “a series of technical documents, so that indigenous peoples, managers and employees could be guided to adopt measures to prevent coronavirus infection.”

Newsweek has contacted SESAI and Secretariat for Social Communication at the Presidency of the Federative Republic of Brazil for comment.