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Displaced indigenous communities left stranded during Covid-19 pandemic

. Jul 25, 2020
indigenous communities Photo: ABr

Human rights organizations have frequently warned of the increased risks to indigenous populations during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the World Health Organization recently singling out traditional communities in Latin America as being particularly vulnerable. However, it is not only the coronavirus that has put these populations at risk, with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCRH) alerting that up to 5,000 indigenous people from several ethnic groups are currently displaced in Brazil, showing that the already existent migrant crisis has hit these communities twice as hard.

</p> <p>While risk of infection of Covid-19 is certainly a concern, migrant indigenous groups are faced with considerable physical barriers, with countries closing their borders to limit the pandemic spread. Colombia and Venezuela, which form a three-way border with Brazil along the Rio Negro.</p> <p>The government in Caracas has tried to avoid the entrance of Brazilians, imposing curfew measures in border provinces. Venezuela&#8217;s Communication Minister Jorge Rodríguez said that “60 percent of the new coronavirus cases” come from other countries.&nbsp;</p> <p>Colombia did the same, militarizing its border with Brazil to block the inflow of foreigners. The Colombian state of Amazonas — not to be confused with the Brazilian state of the same name — has the highest rate of infection per capita in the country, with 2,732 infected people for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to <a href="https://amazonia.fiocruz.br/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/boletin1red_pt_ES1.pdf">a recent study</a> by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), Brazil&#8217;s leading public health research institution</p> <p>To assist these communities, Colombia&#8217;s Health Ministry distributed 55,000 masks to residents of the Amazon region and invested COP 14 billion (BRL 21 million) in a hospital in Leticia, directly on the border with Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, Brazil has gone without a permanent Health Minister for well over two months.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Bolsonaro’s anti-isolation speech a threat to indigenous communities</h2> <p>“Indigenous people face their own particular vulnerabilities to Covid-19, as well as other illnesses. Historically, outbreaks of measles, smallpox, and influenza have decimated the indigenous populations of the Americas, which had no natural immunity to Old World infectious diseases,” explained the UNCRH.</p> <p>The indigenous struggle in Latin America has been around since the European invasion in the 16th century. Since then, the massacre of native populations — from the Aztecs in Mexico to the Mapuche in Argentina — is a continuous social and cultural fight that has consistently been very one-sided.&nbsp;</p> <p>Though Brazil doesn’t have the largest number of indigenous people — between 800,000 and 900,000, according to the <a href="https://indigenas.ibge.gov.br/">Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics</a> (IBGE) — its traditional communities are spread across the largest land mass, which can make providing aid and assistance during a pandemic even more challenging.&nbsp;</p> <p>As <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> explained in April, around 81,000 indigenous people living in remote zones around Brazil could be “critically vulnerable” to Covid-19, according to a study by the University of Campinas (<a href="https://www.unicamp.br/unicamp/">Unicamp</a>). The outbreak could even put some communities at <a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2020/03/27/indigenous-communities-at-risk-of-genocide-with-covid-19-outbreak/">risk of extinction</a>.</p> <p>Indeed, in his book “<a href="https://www.companhiadasletras.com.br/detalhe.php?codigo=13800"><em>Os Fuzis e as Flechas</em></a>” (“The Rifles and the Arrows”), journalist Rubens Valente shows that the main causes of indigenous deaths during the Brazilian military dictatorship were not due to direct violence in their struggle to demarcate lands, but they were a result of diseases brought by non-indigenous people.</p> <p>According to UNHCR senior field associate Sebastian Roa, the situation of indigenous refugees was always doubly precarious. “The forced displacement of indigenous people often leaves them debilitated and malnourished. The lack of access to natural medicine, insalubrious lodging conditions, and exposure to new diseases can sometimes prove fatal,” he stated.

 
Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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