Respiratory diseases are already the leading cause of death among native Brazilian populations, which makes the current pandemic especially dangerous for these groups.
There are still concerns about the shortage of many indigenous communities that buy food in cities and depend on social programs like Bolsa Família, but are being advised to avoid displacement to prevent contagion.
Despite the gravity of the scenario, indigenous associations and organizations that support them say that federal agencies have not taken steps to protect communities – and that there is a lack of basic materials, such as masks, to deal with any cases in the villages.
“There is an incredible risk of the virus spreading through the communities and causing genocide”, says the sanitary doctor Sofia Mendonça, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).
Mendonça is the current coordinator of the Xingu Project at Unifesp, for which the university has been promoting health for indigenous peoples in the Xingu River basin (in Mato Grosso and Pará) for half a century.
She says that the new coronavirus may have an impact comparable to that of major epidemics in the past for Brazilian indigenous peoples, such as those caused by measles.
“Everyone gets sick, and you lose all old people, your wisdom and social organization. There is a hole in the villages,” he says.
Mendonça says, on the other hand, that the memory of past epidemics can stimulate communities that live in large territories to divide into smaller groups and seek refuge inside the forest.
“Probably some will provide themselves with the materials they need to hunt and fish and will set up camps, waiting there until the dust settles,” he says.
Mendonça says that methods used in urban areas to reduce contagion – such as hand washing with gel alcohol – are impractical in many villages. That is why she defends to concentrate her efforts on preventing the virus from reaching communities and isolating any infected people.
Ethnic groups with little contact with the surrounding non-indigenous society, such as the Suruwahá (photo), can be especially vulnerable to respiratory diseases – Photo: Funai
Mendonça, as well as several Brazilian indigenous organizations, has been broadcasting messages on WhatsApp and via radio directing communities to suspend trips to cities and prevent visitors from entering.
In recent weeks, several groups have canceled meetings and rituals open to tourists. The Terra Livre Camp – the main event of the Brazilian indigenous movement, which takes place in Brasília every April – has been suspended.
Even so, Mendonça says there are considerable chances that the virus will reach the villages – and that it will be necessary to isolate the sick before they infect their relatives.
According to her, the ways of life of several indigenous peoples – which include sharing utensils such as bowls and living in homes with many people – tend to increase the contagion power of infectious diseases.
In 2018, according to the Ministry of Health, infectious and parasitic diseases – types of diseases considered preventable – were responsible for 7.2% of deaths among indigenous people, compared to a national average of 4.5%.
Among indigenous children under the age of one year, respiratory diseases were responsible for 22.6% of deaths registered in 2019, a rate only lower than that of deaths caused by problems in the perinatal period (24.5%).
Mendonça has guided communities to adopt seclusion practices – usually used in rites of passage – to isolate people with symptoms of the disease.
In these rituals, says the doctor, several communities usually use physical barriers, such as straw walls, so that the inmate does not have contact with the other members of the group.
Mendonça says that it is also necessary to act to prevent the virus from reaching groups that live in voluntary isolation. According to Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio), there are 107 records of indigenous groups not contacted in the Brazilian Amazon.
Many territories inhabited by these groups are targeted by loggers, prospectors, hunters and missionaries, who can take the virus to communities.
Mendonça says that Funai should reactivate bases charged with protecting these areas that were closed in recent years amid a reduction in the agency’s budget.
She also defends that indigenous people who are in cities and have symptoms associated with covid-19 should be tested. If there is no confirmation of the disease, they should return to the village quickly, reducing the chances of contagion in the city.
Experts fear that gold prospectors and other invaders will bring a new coronavirus to indigenous peoples – Photo: Ibama
For now, however, the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health does not have tests to detect covid-19, according to health professionals interviewed by BBC News Brasil on condition of anonymity.
A servant who works in Mato Grosso says that masks and other basic protection items are also lacking to deal with any cases in the villages.
She says that non-urgent medical procedures among indigenous people have been suspended, and that only critically ill patients are being sent to hospitals to reduce the risk of contagion. The remaining cases are being dealt with in the villages.
In view of the lack of resources and government actions to face the pandemic, she says that civil servants are organizing on their own, collecting from well-known cleaning items and food to send to communities.
According to the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai), linked to the Ministry of Health, there are no confirmed infections of the new coronavirus among indigenous people.
In São Gabriel da Cachoeira, an Amazonian municipality on the border between Brazil and Colombia and Venezuela where the majority of the population is indigenous, health agencies await the result of an examination of a non-indigenous patient who recently arrived from Manaus.
Until this Tuesday (03/24), the capital of Amazonas had 45 confirmed cases of the disease.
There are no Intensive Care Units (ICUs) or mechanical respirators in São Gabriel, which would require the displacement of critically ill patients to Manaus, a thousand kilometers away by river.
Marivelton Baré, president of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro (Foirn), based in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, says that the communities in the region are in a panic.
He says that, last week, the city promised to prohibit the arrival of boats, the main means of access to the city, but that, nonetheless, a boat with about 100 passengers landed last Monday (23/03) .
Baré further states that, although the federal government ordered the borders to be closed last week, there is still transit of Venezuelans and Colombians in the region.
According to Baré, there is special concern with indigenous people of the Hupdah and Yuhupdeh ethnic groups who spend several months of the year camped by the Negro river, in the urban area of São Gabriel da Cachoeira.
The flow of members of these ethnic groups has increased in recent years as they were registered with the Bolsa Família program and started to travel to the city to receive the benefit.
Coming from communities that are a few days away by boat from the headquarters of São Gabriel, several of these families have difficulties to buy the necessary fuel for the return trip and end up staying long periods in the city. With that, they stopped cultivating their gardens and started to depend on the food bought in the cities.
According to the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai), linked to the Ministry of Health, there are no confirmed infections of the new coronavirus among indigenous people – Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Members of several other ethnic groups in the region also visit São Gabriel during the liberation of Bolsa Família, a period in which there is great agglomeration on the streets of the municipality.
Baré says it will be necessary to think of ways to take food to the villages so that the indigenous people do not have to visit the city during the pandemic. The challenge applies to several other regions of Brazil where indigenous people often go to cities to meet basic needs.
Asked by BBC News Brasil about the threat of food shortages in communities during the pandemic, Funai did not mention specific actions to deal with the issue.
In a note, the agency said only that “it is aware of the situation of greater vulnerability of the diverse indigenous peoples of Brazil” and has been articulating actions with other bodies, such as the Ministry of Citizenship and the National Supply Company (Conab), on the subject.
The Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai) also did not comment on fears of shortages in the villages.
In a note to BBC News Brasil about his position in the face of the pandemic, the secretariat says he produced “a series of technical documents so that indigenous peoples, managers and employees could be guided to adopt measures to prevent coronavirus infection”.
According to Sesai, “all Multidisciplinary Indigenous Health Teams have already received training to work on possible suspected cases of covid-19”.
The agency also says that it has been advising the indigenous people to travel to the city only “in case of extreme need”, and that, when returning to the villages, “they must pay attention to the recommended hygiene measures”.
Campaigns to raise funds
The fear of shortages in the midst of the pandemic has caused many indigenous communities to promote campaigns to raise funds.
This is the case, for example, of the Mendonças do Amarelão community, in Rio Grande do Norte, and the Maxakali people, in Minas Gerais. Both disclosed bank accounts on WhatsApp to receive donations.
“We are afraid to go to the city, so I ask each one of you to cooperate so we can buy a basic food basket”, says a message released by Isael Maxakali, from the Minas Gerais ethnic group.
For Bishop Roque Paloschi, president of the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), an organ linked to the Catholic Church that works with dozens of Brazilian indigenous peoples, the actions of the federal government to protect communities from the pandemic are “far short of what is necessary”.
“We are concerned that the government will take advantage of this situation to withdraw all assistance from the communities, establishing complete chaos and aiming at the removal of the indigenous people from their territories,” says Paloschi.
He says that, without hope of being helped by the government, indigenous people from various regions of the country have been forced to resort to the solidarity of other citizens.
“In this pandemic, there is no government plan to deal with the most basic needs not only of indigenous peoples, but also of the poorest and most vulnerable”, he criticizes.
The first record of the coronavirus in Brazil was on February 24. A 61-year-old businessman, who lives in São Paulo (SP), was infected after returning from a trip, between February 9th and 21st, to the Italian region of Lombardy, the most affected in the European country that has more cases outside China.
According to the Ministry of Health, the 61-year-old businessman had symptoms such as fever, dry cough, sore throat and runny nose. His relatives started to be monitored. Days later, examinations showed that a person linked to the patient also had the new coronavirus and transmitted the virus to a third person. All remained quarantined in their homes for a period of at least 14 days.
After the first case, several other records started to be made in Brazil. Many came from countries with numerous cases of the new coronavirus, but later cases of local and, finally, community transmission were recorded.
Two weeks later, it was announced that the 61-year-old businessman is cured of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The main recommendation of health professionals who monitor the outbreak is simple, but quite efficient: washing your hands with soap after using the bathroom, whenever you get home or before handling food.
Ideally, rub your hands for between 15 and 20 seconds to ensure that viruses and bacteria are eliminated.
If you are in a public environment, for example, or with a large crowd, do not touch your mouth, nose or eyes without first washing your hands or cleaning them with alcohol. The virus is transmitted by air, but also by contact.
It is also important to keep the environment clean, sanitizing surfaces such as furniture and cell phones with disinfectant solutions.
To clean the phone, you can use a solution with about half of water and half of alcohol, in addition to a clean cloth.
Indigenous people receive booklet and medical advice on preventing the new coronavirus