Genocidal Disease, as it is Happening in Amazonia

Back in 2009 with a Fulbright Foreign Scholarship and as a Visiting Professor at the Universidade Federal do Amazonas (UFAM), I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Amazonian and Brazilian city of Manaus of over two-million people among urban Amerindians there. The urbanized Native peoples living in Manaus, the capitol of Amazonas State, may number as many as 50,000 or more nowadays. Of this urban Amerindian population, I worked with and studied the Apurinã, Kambeba, Kokama, Munduruku, Mura, Sateré-Mawé, Tikuna, and Tukano peoples over a period of seven months.

Up until that time, I had never been exposed to such immense destitution and poverty. The Indians living in Manaus usually inhabited dwellings made mostly from pieced-together plywood and/or tin with dirt floors, no electricity, and no running water. For those dwellings with some electricity, it was stolen from a nearby electric power-pole and transformer. For some there was often a communal-well providing the community with water. Among the urban Sateré-Mawé I worked with, and on the week before I had arrived, neighbors to the community burned down the school-house building because they did not want Natives in their vicinity. Racism against these peoples continues to this day. Whites (os brancos) living in Manaus will not recognize such urbanized Indians as indigenous peoples because they are thought to be “civilized” (civilizados), and therefore, no longer Indians. Of course, this is untrue and is racist. But more Indians live in Brazil’s cities than they do in the interior.

And yet, nobody could have imagined a global pandemic like the Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting these Amerindian peoples in this way, so remote from the rest of Brazil, and even in this city of Manaus, the largest in the Amazon region. In reality this genocidal nightmare from this disease may only likely be compared with the chickenpox, influenza, measles, and smallpox brought by Europeans more than 500 years ago to these Amerindian peoples. Anthropologists and geographers estimate those diseases may have wiped out as many as 90% of those early indigenous contact populations, as many as 56 million people. Thus, what we may be witnessing today is “genocidal disease”, and COVID-19 may continue its devastating destruction in these far reaches of Lowland South America and across Amazonia, exterminating Amerindian peoples until a vaccine is found, perhaps a year or more away in the future.

Nevertheless, the rest of Brazil is paying attention to Manaus because of the ensuing health crisis there. While Manaus is not an entirely Amerindian-city, many Manaurans have indigenous-descent in their family heritage, and elsewhere might be considered to be caboclo (a mixed-heritage person with both Indian and white ancestry), or misturado (mixed). Photographs of hundreds of freshly dug graves at the Parque Tarumã Cemetery just outside Manaus indicate the absolute devastation. Manaus’s Mayor, Arthur Virgílio, proclaimed in exasperation: “We aren’t in a state of emergency—we’re well beyond that. We are in a state of utter disaster…like a country that is at war—and has lost.” In this month alone, Manaus is estimated to bury as many 4,500 dead with funeral homes running out of wooden-coffins in which to bury the deceased. The city has been filling trenches with the dead, 3 coffins stacked one atop another in rows of hundreds, until grieving families protested the practice against such mass trenches (trincheiras). Likewise, the health system in Manus is experiencing a complete breakdown in its ability to cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

According to Marcia Castro, Andelot Professor of Demography and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Manaus is reaching a “humanitarian crisis” for multiple and unfortunate reasons. For one, there are not enough hospital beds for patients inflicted by Coronavirus, and as more become infected. Currently, hospitals are at capacity or above capacity for receipt of such sick patients. Additionally, hospitals do not have enough ventilators for sick patients or “personal protective equipment” (PPEs) for staff. Moreover, at least 43% of the population living in Brazilian Amazonia do not have access to running water. Therefore, the notion of washing one’s hands with soap for at least sixty-seconds, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), is all but impossible for many. What is more, the state with the highest Gini coefficient in Brazil, or income inequality, is Amazonas State according to Dr. Castro.

Much of Manaus itself is a favela, or a “slum”, and much of it is built from illegal-housing. As such, it is an impoverished city and many of those living in Manaus are not registered, and therefore cannot receive the government pension during this health crisis. Already, those living in Manaus are susceptible to malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases and evident prior to Coronavirus. As elsewhere in the developing world, COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities and health disparities in the region.

While the COVID-19 crisis is ongoing, indigenous peoples throughout Brazilian Amazonia face threats from outside invaders, especially illegal loggers (madeireiros ilegais) and illegal miners (garimpeiros) onto their lands. In addition, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has encouraged the development of the Amazon and has vowed to no longer protect indigenous demarcated lands. Because of this prevailing lax attitude from the Brazilian executive branch, yet another Brazilian Native was recently murdered, Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia on April 17th by illegal loggers. While Zezico Guajajara was killed on March 31st also by illegal loggers. At the same time, illegal loggers and illegal miners are bringing Coronavirus to Brazilian Native peoples and causing the unnecessary further spread of the disease onto Native reserves as evident from statements made by indigenous people and recent videos from the Amazon. As indigenous leader, Anderson Munduruku, explained: “We are very concerned with this issue of contamination of our relatives within our territory.”

Furthermore, President Bolsonaro called COVID-19, a “little flu” (gripezinha) or “little cold” (resfriadinho), and encouraged the Brazilian people to continue to work and not self-isolate nor social distance against the advice of many state-governors such as those from populous states like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. While many city-dwellers living in Manaus, who often live in over-crowded housing, are not following state government rules of self-isolation and social distancing because of President Bolsonaro, and as a result, the disease is becoming more and more widespread across the metropolis. Adding to this are the economic consequences of the Coronavirus, which will definitely cause “food insecurity” in the Brazilian Amazon, making a growing health catastrophe that much worse as it will elsewhere in the developing world.

As of today, May 3rd, there are a total of 6,683 people infected by COVID-19 in Amazonas State with about 61% of these existing in Manaus and a total of 548 confirmed deaths. In Brazil, there are presently a total of about 101,000 cases of COVID-19 and a total of about 7,025 deaths and this is since cases have been reported from March 21st until now. According to the Manaus newspaper, A Crítica, epidemiologists and health professionals believe Manaus will be projected to have as many as 748 deaths from COVID-19 by mid-May.

As Brazilian-American demographer, Dr. Marcia Castro explained: “We know social isolation works. A lot of people think that bringing the curve down is just to save lives. It is more than this. It is to prevent a collapse of the health system…and the resources are not that good in the Amazon. Once the system has collapsed, all the actions are what we call in public health the ‘fire-brigade response’. You are going where the fire is burning but you are not preventing new fires from happening.” Of course, the other objective you need to have is testing. People need to be tested all the time to contain the virus.

Beyond Manaus, which is a Brazilian epicenter for the Coronavirus and its ongoing devastation, is the disease’s destruction of those Amerindians living in the interior of Brazil. As Carlos Fausto, Professor of Anthropology at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) mentioned in an article about Native peoples he studied in the Upper Xingu: “…Not only because we have no vaccine and no viable treatment against this new virus, but also because we lack a government fit for the challenge. The Brazilian government is flirting with death, ignoring the obvious. ‘It’s like the measles from the time of my grandfather’, as Kanari Kuikuro reminds us. Unburied bodies in the streets, endless deaths in the villages. We must take urgent measures to defend Indigenous peoples and their lands. We cannot see another genocide.”

Likewise, French Anthropologist, Bruce Albert, remarked in a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “In some ways it reminds me of the stories the Yanomami elders have told me about times when they fled to the forest in small groups to hide from the cannibalistic ‘Epidemic Spirit’, Xawarari. However, this time, we have become our own victims by loosening on ourselves the epidemiological consequences of this predatory hubris, just as indigenous leaders like Yanomami shaman and philosopher Davi Kopenawa have been warning us for decades. In today’s hyperconnected industrial world, ecological imbalances or disease vectors that might once have affected only one corner of the planet now threaten us all. And perhaps now, as we are all now exposed to an invisible enemy for which we have no defenses, this harrowing experience of our shared fragility may stir global society to rethink its current course.”

Additionally, I keep seeing notices on Facebook from indigenous acquaintances and friends of those who have succumbed to COVID-19. Here is one of these: “It is with regret that we received the news from the relative of the Ticuna Native group, Aldenor Ticuna, another indigenous teacher who died due to the proliferation of the COVID-19 virus. The family is mourning and we send our deepest feelings of condolences to them.”

In some of the earliest reports about Brazilian Amerindians, such as about the Tupinambás, the Portuguese described them as “justified in their periodic migrations because they believed it ‘…better to change their faces and do the opposite of their grandparents, or they would die quickly” (Doctoral thesis, Cristina Brandt Friederich Martin Gurgel, UNICAMP, 2009).

And back then in the 16th century, many Amerindians tried running away from the diseases the Europeans brought. There are still innumerable uncontacted tribes living in the farthest reaches of Amazonia who need our protection, dozens of distinct and separate groups. But this disease, this COVID-19, will cause innumerous apocalyptic annihilation among Brazilian Amerindians. And we are allowing the Brazilian government to let it happen because they will not prevent the incursions of illegal loggers and illegal miners on Native Brazilian lands. If anything the rhetoric of President Bolsonaro encourages such illegal invasions.

In sum, we are in the midst of a genocidal disease devastating Amazonian Native peoples and we must act to prevent this cataclysmic pandemic from completely wiping out some of the most vulnerable peoples on our planet.

We must act now, really, before it is too late.

Petition: Sign Survival International’s Petition to Stop Brazilian Genocide against Brazilian Amerindians:

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).