Organized Indigenous Communities and Indigenous Knowledge Can Prevent the Spread of Covid19

Guambía people relaxing in Colombia. Photograph Source: Yuri Romero Picon – Public Domain

With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Latin American countries, indigenous peoples and communities face the challenges that this disease brings, the contagion of which has proven to be highly rapid and aggressive. Faced with government neglect, the absence of social investment in their regions and the lack of access to regional or national hospitals, indigenous people are in a position of total disadvantage as governments focus on controlling the disease in the cities. Indigenous communities are forced to face the crisis alone and ensure for themselves the care of all their members.

Among indigenous peoples, the pandemic is generating a deep concern for the health of grandparents, who are the population most prone to contagion and death. Under normal living conditions, indigenous communities do not have access to basic health services, and now in the midst of this pandemic they know that they will not have access to intensive care services.

Mayan guides such as Otilia Lux de Coti, Clara Nimatuj Ajqui and Felipe Gómez are recognizing, first, that the coronavirus is not the cause of the crisis facing the world at the moment, but rather, it is the harvest of what the capitalist system has sown throughout the centuries, and more rapidly during the XX century and the two decades of the XXI century. Mother Earth can no longer tolerate the permanent pressure of the depredation of natural goods in a system where the greedy, white, conservative investor has chosen excessive accumulation at the cost of undermining human, animal, plant and mineral life.

Second, they tell us that in historical moments like these we must continue to use the calendars of each indigenous people to interpret events day by day and understand the message that each of the nahuals and the even or odd numbers are sending to members of our communities, because there they will find the necessary spiritual and cosmogonic strength to face confinement, create strategies for survival, find food, heal and pass this stage to emerge stronger.

Third, that this moment of human calamity should be a mandate to indigenous communities to take on the responsibility of protecting grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers because they hold our historical memory, transmit our collective knowledge, conserve ancestral wisdom, and act as our spiritual guides. They are the experts in managing our own medicines and also those responsible for the exercise of justice within each community. Faced with the danger that hangs over them, the members of the communities must spare no effort to protect them from contagion, provide them with the necessary care and never abandon them.

Fourth, peoples and communities must organize and face each other in harmony, using the plants and species that their respective regions possess. Wherever possible, eucalyptus branches should be placed in the four corners of each house, along with a handful of cloves so that strong aromas strengthen the respiratory systems of grandparents and of all members. We should take the citrus fruits such as orange, lemon, lime, marañon and other similar fruits that the regions have and use them in juices, teas or prepare them with herbs such as lemongrass, borage, peppermint or sage. The use of garlic and ginger in teas or meals should be used to build defenses and strengthen the body’s immunity. The graphic above shows an example of a guide to face the coronavirus in indigenous communities.

Fifth, Lux de Coti and Felipe Gómez agree that 2020 is a leap year and brings with it novelties for humanity that are not always negative, but serve as warnings that must be interpreted because no human being, regardless of their wealth or power, is superior to animals, plants, rivers or forests. We must accept the life and force of nature with humility because she will always rebel against the destruction or the cutting of her veins that give life. They tell us that the children and young people must learn that signs in the sky become news on earth, and that you have to know how to listen to the birds and other animals that have been warning about what was coming since January.

Sixth, our spiritual guides recommend that the leaders demand that governments respect the right of indigenous peoples to be informed in their respective native languages. This right is guaranteed in ILO Convention 169, in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in most of the national laws of the respective countries. The exercise of this right is key in moments like now because it requires that the specialized information that day by day comes from the medical or research centers reaches the most distant communities in their languages, especially the populations that are in mostly monolingual. Here are some examples of messages in different indigenous languages ​​that inform about this pandemic.

Seventh, they recommend that all indigenous communities use the vast pharmacies that the communities still have–their forests and deserts—to use the plants that grow there seasonally to prepare solutions for cleaning, to disinfect homes and communities. For example, a Wuqub Qak’ix video teaches us how to use our own plants to protect ourselves. There are also the basic plants to prevent contagion or to care for the sick.

Revaluing ancestral knowledge in the management of medicine is essential at this time when governments will be unable to reach remote places. And for the indigenous people who live in the cities, the guides recommend that they plant small plants and foods to survive.

Eighth, they call on all indigenous professionals, regardless of their area of ​​expertise, to put their knowledge at the service of their communities. In these difficult times, everyone must contribute in solidarity to the care of all members of their communities, especially the most vulnerable. Similarly, indigenous professionals should use their networks of contacts at all possible levels to support their communities in the event that the situation is aggravated by massive contagions.

Ninth, they remind all indigenous people who are far from their communities or who were not able to travel to join their villages, for reasons of work, study, illness or any other reason, not to feel alone. They urge them to take all precautions to protect themselves and to remember that they belong to a group, that they always have their place there, that their bowl is waiting for them. They will need the knowledge they learned from their parents and grandparents to get through this moment. They should also remember to keep in touch with their families since the time of separation seems to be lengthening because we do not know how the virus will advance in rural countries and communities.

And finally, the Mayan spiritual guides reflect that this pandemic is a reminder that Mother Earth and Mother Nature are currently in search of balance and harmony to continue subsisting. For this reason, it is not necessary to be filled with nostalgia or fear, but it is necessary to seek strength within the peoples themselves who are millennia old and who have found the power to overcome other catastrophes, such as the long external and internal colonialism whose impacts are what we are seeing now.

With hope and humility, we must remember that the commitments to continue caring for and respecting Mother Earth will continue, despite the fact that indigenous peoples are the guardians and that at times like these they have the least access to protection from the states. The struggles will continue to rely on the fact that indigenous peoples will reunite soon to continue to fulfill their role of guaranteeing the continuity of their peoples by maintaining the fragile balance with the heart of the earth and the heart of heaven.

Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj is a Maya-K’iche’n anthropologist and journalist, currently a visiting professor at Stanford University (