As coronavirus outbreak reaches South America, indigenous people go into lockdown

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For decades, indigenous groups from Colombia to Brazil have been fighting the threat to their lives posed by oil exploration, deforestation and illegal logging.

Now, the battle is against the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Indigenous tribes are locking down and closing off their reserves to visitors as they fear the disease that is fast spreading across South America could wipe them out.

As they have little or no immunity to common outside diseases, “an epidemic can wipe out an entire tribe,” warned Jonathan Mazower, communications director at London-based Survival International, an indigenous rights group.

While, so far, no confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported among indigenous people in South America, Canada’s Navajo Nation has at least 26 confirmed cases in parts of North America, according to the tribe’s newspaper.

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Across Latin America and the Caribbean, cases of the highly contagious illness are rising daily, with more than 4,000 infected and almost 50 deaths, according to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).

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Worldwide the respiratory disease has infected more than 350,000 people and the death toll exceeds 15,000, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The message from indigenous leaders living in the Amazon rainforest and across other tribal lands is clear: stay out.

In Colombia — home to about 2 million indigenous people, according to the government — tribal leaders from the northern snow-capped mountains to the remote tropical forests of the south have issued advice to their communities.

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Visitors are not allowed to enter their self-governing reserves, and communities should implement social distancing and suspend schools and all meetings on ancestral lands.

To stem the spread of coronavirus, Colombia has shut its borders, ordered a nationwide 19-day lockdown from March 24 and has closed all its national parks, many of which are home to indigenous people.

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The country’s indigenous people are at particular risk due to the “misery, poverty and malnutrition that they have suffered historically”, the regional indigenous organization (ORIC) in the central Casanare province said in a statement last week.


Indigenous people, particularly uncontacted or recently contacted tribes, are most at risk of contracting the virus, said Mazower.

Tribes that have only recently had contact with outsiders, like the Ayoreo in Paraguay who had their first contact with foreigners in the 1940s, are at risk because many already suffer from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, Mazower said.

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In past decades, indigenous communities have suffered fatal epidemics, including swine flu which killed at least seven Yanomami Indians in 2009, while influenza and malaria — often brought in by miners and loggers — have hit other forest tribes.

“Historically we know that indigenous people have a greater biological vulnerability (to epidemics), especially to respiratory infections,” said Ana Paula Vargas, Brazil program manager for Amazon Watch, an indigenous rights group.

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As some indigenous tribes only number a few dozen people or less, any deaths from the coronavirus means some communities could face outright extinction.

“With the coronavirus threat, there is the possibility of really exterminating an entire people,” Vargas said.

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Brazil is home to about 900,000 indigenous people — less than 1 per cent of the population — according to government figures, of which roughly a third live in cities.

There, indigenous communities living near urban centers are bracing for the spread of coronavirus, which indigenous and health experts say threatens their livelihoods as well as their health.

The country has confirmed more than 1,600 coronavirus cases.

Lockdowns have been ordered in major states such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and Brazil’s borders with neighboring countries have closed.

“The situation is very dire. We don’t know where to find food,” said David Karai Popygua, an ethnic Guarani Mbya teacher living in the small indigenous Jaragua settlement inside Sao Paulo, which saw a 37% increase in cases over the weekend, according to government data.

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As their lands are too small for foraging, the Guarani Mbya need to buy food in town and make a living selling indigenous crafts.

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The outbreak has seen sales of crafts plummet, while food donations from non-profits have stopped, Popygua told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We need help because the majority of families have no way of feeding themselves. We’re trying to help each other, but we are afraid of leaving the village and catching the virus,” he said.

“(The government) is not treating the community as a special case. We are over 600 people here, but we have no help.”

The head of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI), Marcelo Xavier, said in a video message sent to indigenous people on Friday that all preventative measures are being taken to avoid infection among indigenous people.

He also said that authorizations for outsiders to enter indigenous lands have been suspended indefinitely.

FUNAI did not reply to a request for comment.

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Many indigenous people receive a monthly subsidy from Brazil’s government, which they depend on to survive.

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But to get the subsidy, people have to put their lives at risk as they need to leave their reserves to pick up the cash in nearby towns, said experts in indigenous affairs.


In Brazil’s northeastern Bahia state, home to about 35,000 indigenous people, according to Juari Braz Pataxo, a local indigenous leader, all villages that work with tourism have been closed off.

“Some of the more distant (communities) are able to maintain themselves, but others depend on cities. We’re advising people to leave only … if essential,” he said.

Pataxo and other indigenous leaders are using social networks to alert distant villages, sending information about preventing the spread of coronavirus via WhatsApp in their native languages.

“We released an animation that has all the necessary information,” said Douglas Rodrigues, a professor of medicine at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, which has a project promoting health among indigenous communities.

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“It’s the same (information) being released by the health ministry but in a way they can understand,” he noted.

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Tribes that are more isolated, like the ones deep in the Amazon region, are more protected from infection as they are less likely to come in contact with outsiders who might be carrying the virus, said Rodrigues.

But if anyone in those tribes does catch coronavirus, the lack of nearby healthcare and their lack of immunity could prove fatal.

“If they are infected, they are screwed,” said Rodrigues.

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(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney and Fabio Teixeira; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Credit: the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.)

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