COVID-19 and Amerindians

Most of us are preoccupied with quarantining, and whether or not we will have jobs to go back to when this is all over. In truth, it may be months. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine the Coronavirus (COVID-19) wreaking more economic or mortal havoc elsewhere, but it will, especially in the “developing world”. Imagine, cities like Dhaka, Karachi, Lagos, Manila, Port-au-Prince, or Brazilian favelas (slums), and/or refugee camps in the Middle East—places where social distancing is all but impossible. Imagine throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where they do not have access to enough ventilators they will need, not enough testing kits, not enough masks nor rubber gloves, and other protective equipment, nor the types of health care systems, and amounts of money in order to combat Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Now imagine, peoples and areas of the world, much, much more vulnerable to Coronavirus (COVID-19) than other populations because of their lack of immunity to respiratory illnesses. Such peoples are Brazilian Amerindians. Many anthropologists, epidemiologists, physicians, and public health experts, are sounding the alarm. Indigenous populations like those in Brazil are particularly vulnerable and have been so for more than five-hundred years with the invasion of Europeans onto their lands and the spread of European diseases such as influenza, measles, and smallpox. Even more worrisome are the isolated Natives who have no contact with the outside world and modern society. In Brazil, there are as many as one-hundred-and-seventy such isolated indigenous groups without outside contact living in the Amazon.

In 2009, I spent about seven-months in the Amazonian city of Manaus with a population of more than two-million in Amazonas State as a Fulbright scholar, visiting professor, and anthropological researcher, conducting an anthropological study on urban Amerindian peoples there. It is the most populous city in the Brazilian Amazon and it is the city where most Brazilian Amerindians living in Brazil’s interior Amazon will try to go for hospital and medical care. But the distances are frequently great. For example, the distance between São Gabriel de Cachoeira, a largely indigenous-city of almost forty-one-thousand in the Upper Rio Negro area, and Manaus, is about 850 kilometers (528 miles). By airplane, it is about 4 hours, and by ferry boat the distance is about 3 days. By then, if one travels by boat, it might be too late for most Indians who try to make the journey with those stricken by the illness. São Gabriel de Cachoeira does not have the hospital facilities nor the medical care for such a deadly contagion.

Some have stated that much of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon, and elsewhere, might become wiped out from the virus since medical care for most communities in the interior is so remote. To make matters even worse, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, has flat out denied the severity of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), and has called it a “little flu” , a “measly cold”, and a fake-media con. In fact, Bolsonaro has criticized various state governors in Brazil, especially São Paulo State and Rio de Janeiro State governors, two of the most populous ones, for quarantining residents in their states and also closing the beaches. At the moment, there is even a concerted effort to “impeach” Bolsonaro, even among his governor and legislative supporters, who are contradicting his numerous ignorant and lackadaisical pronouncements about his non-scientific views on COVID-19. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is quite dangerous, akin to similar reckless and uninformed declarations about the Coronavirus as those of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Both Latin American leaders are putting their populations at mortal risk by not taking the Coronavirus pandemic seriously. As of today, April 9th, there are 15,927 confirmed cases of Coronavirus and 800 deaths from the disease in Brazil, the most in Latin America.

Regardless, in Brazil, the country’s indigenous population, who make up approximately 0.6% of the nation’s some two-hundred and eleven million inhabitants, are at extreme risk from COVID-19. The situation is truly dire and urgent because if more and more indigenous people become infected, mortality rates among Native peoples could get out of control. So far though, and thank goodness, only a few Amerindian individuals have become infected. Many Brazilian Amerindian communities and indigenous reserves throughout Latin America are now closing themselves off from outsiders for fear of contagion from this pandemic virus. Many Amerindian peoples are in fact barricading roads leading to their community reserves for dread of contamination from Coronavirus. Furthermore, the aforementioned indigenous city, São Gabriel de Cachoeira, is presently on complete lockdown by disallowing any boat traffic entering or leaving the city and suspending all flights.

I want to be clear about this. We may be witnessing the worst genocide from a disease not experienced by indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere since the first European contacts with Native peoples more than five-hundred years ago. Coronavirus (COVID-19) has the potential of devastating Amerindians in Brazil and Amerindians elsewhere in Lowland South America at levels never seen before in the modern era.

Already there is an adolescent Yanomami boy, aged 15, who is gravely ill with the Coronavirus and six other known cases of Amerindians with the disease in the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Pará, and Roraima. Aside from the Yanomami boy, there are four cases attributed to the Kokama Indians, another of an 87-year old Borari woman, and a 45-year old man from the Baré tribe. As worrisome are invaders on Brazilian indigenous reserves, such as the illegal goldminers (garimpeiros) on Yanomami lands. If such illegal goldminers are not forcibly removed by the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments, they may unnecessarily bring COVID-19 to Yanomami people and wipe out entire villages in the process and annihilate the remaining few Yanomami people. Also, recently, on April 2nd, there was news of yet another Guajajara Indian who was assassinated by illegal loggers (madeireiros ilegais) invading the Guajajara Native Reserve, the fifth such murder of these tribespeople within six months.

Already, Brazilian President Bolsonaro has a horrendous record on human rights with racist proclamations against Brazilian Indians, as well as racist remarks against other minorities such as contra Brazilian Afro-descendent populations, and against those from the Brazilian LBGT community. Not long ago, Bolsonaro declared: “Increasingly, the Indian, is becoming human, just like us” (Cada vez mais, o índio é um ser humano igual a nós)—a truly ignorant observation about Brazil’s indigenous population.

Thus, experts have written open-letters expressing their concerns, such as the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA). In an open-letter from SALSA on March 22nd, the organization states: “SALSA is therefore deeply concerned about the dangers that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses to the indigenous peoples of Brazil, especially isolated peoples, who are among the most vulnerable…Thus SALSA considers any unwarranted attempt to approach immunologically vulnerable people in the midst of such an unpredictable pandemic, especially without the input and participation of experienced field agents, to be reckless and potentially catastrophic, and urges Brazilian and international authorities to treat any lethal consequences of such approach as murder or genocide.”

As the Brazilian indigenous Krenaki-leader, Ailton Krenak, avowed: “What I have learned over the decades is that everyone needs to wake up, because for a time it was just us, the indigenous peoples, who were threatened with a complete rupture or extinction about the meaning of our lives as human beings. Yet today, we are all facing a sense of immediacy from the Earth not willing to support our demands.”

As such, I am very, very worried about the urban Amerindian people I worked with a decade ago in Manaus, Brazil, namely, the Apurinã, Kambeba, Kokama, Munduruku, Mura, Sateré-Mawé, Tikuna, and Tukano, urban Amerindian peoples. And unlike popular mythology, just because such Indians have migrated to cities, does not detract from their indigeneity, nor does it mean they are more immune to such grave respiratory illnesses as Coronavirus (COVID-19). These are Natives living in the margins of Amazonian cities like Manaus and because of their extreme poverty, are that much more vulnerable to susceptibility for contracting the virus.

I can only hope that the Brazilian government will aid these urban Amerindians as well. But the situation is so potentially catastrophic because the present political climate of the Bolsonaro Adminstration is ignoring the rights of Brazil’s indigenous people.

May all of the Amerindians stay healthy and safe and may they continue in the struggle (luta) for their rights.

As a Sateré-Mawé chief (tuxaua) frequently said to me in his own language: Waku Sese! (Tudo Bem! All Well!)—indeed, may all be well for all of you my Amerindian friends!

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).