How COVID-19 is impacting Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

While the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil have faced many serious challenges, the impacts of COVID-19 are unprecedented and terrifying. The whole health system has collapsed and as a consequence of land and resource depletion, their very survival is at stake.

Edson Krenak

BRAZIL is home to 63% of the Amazon rainforest peoples and is the country most affected by the new coronavirus in Latin America. Many Indigenous Peoples in Brazil live in remote communities. They are at a higher risk of serious infection from COVID-19 because most of them live in distant areas with limited transport, lack of access to healthcare and food supply, and with obstacles to communication such as poor Internet connection and unreliable electricity. The healthcare structure also poses a challenge and intensifies the pandemic threat for Indigenous communities.

Some Indigenous people live close enough to cities and are visited by outsiders. Living in proximity or not, they all have to travel to small towns for education, healthcare, food and other necessities. The number of those infected with COVID-19 is increasing. This article focuses on Amazonia and highlights some good work done by Indigenous healthcare officers, leaders and supporters.

Amazonia: An alarming situation

The situation is alarming. Forty-five percent of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil live in the north of the country, particularly in the most populated state, Amazonas. Its capital, Manaus, the largest northern city, is home to 15,000-20,000 Indigenous people and more than 53 Indigenous languages are spoken. Manaus is now one of the most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The health system has collapsed with a 36% increase in cases per day and the deaths of more than one hundred daily as of 20 April. The first deaths of Indigenous people from the virus also occurred in Amazonas: a 15-year-old Yanomami boy, and writer and health agent Aldevan Baniwa, 45, of the Baniwa Peoples. Those who study (it is the beginning of the school year in Brazil) and work in the cities, like Aldevan Baniwa, are oriented not to go back to their villages, creating a new situation that gives rise to need for assistance and support.

SESAI, the Health Ministry’s health agency for Indigenous Peoples, employs many Indigenous nurses and a few Indigenous doctors who offer not only healthcare but also food and news from the city and hygiene products when available. Some Indigenous health agents gave first-hand accounts of the situation of Indigenous Peoples who have been successful in protecting their communities.

Zuleica Tiago Terena is an Indigenous nurse who coordinates SESAI’s work in 15 villages in midwestern Mato Grosso do Sul state. When asked how they are fighting the coronavirus, she stated: ‘In our villages, we are protecting our people by erecting physical barriers and sanitation barriers to prevent strangers, tourists, missionaries, anthropologists and other people from visiting us. We have regular educational talks and activities with the community. The local leaders responsible for those actions have support from SESAI staff. The families or workers that had to go out are isolated in quarantine after returning. There is a healthcare technician who usually lives in the village and is responsible for monitoring those families.

‘I’m responsible for 15 villages, and not all of them have a local healthcare technician. It would be great if we had at least one per village. The larger villages really need healthcare workers. We do our best here. We are proud of our work for our people.

‘What I see in the state of Amazonas is chaos, a collapse at all levels, in the city, state, federal and Indigenous healthcare systems. There is a complex problem because the Indigenous villages in Amazonia are near to each other, and the Indigenous workers work with different tribes in the city then go back home. I don’t think that the isolation policy is clear or has been taken seriously in Amazonas. Now, they are hardest hit by the coronavirus in the north and northeast of Brazil. We need leaders and stronger leadership among and for Indigenous Peoples.’           

In northern Roraima state, Indigenous physician Onaldo Sena from the Kaxinawa Peoples works for DSEI, the Special Indigenous Health Agency which is a decentralised management unit of the Indigenous Health Care Subsystem (SasiSUS). DSEI is a model service oriented towards a well-defined dynamic, geographic, population and administrative ethnocultural space. However, it has only 34 offices across the entire country to attend to almost 980,000 Indigenous people from 416 ethnicities in more than 6,238 villages.

Sena spoke of the situation of the Indigenous people in his area: ‘I work in a healthcare unit responsible for more than 50,000 Indigenous people from seven different ethnic groups. Our patients are from isolated, urban and suburban areas. The communities that live in the hills are aware of the situation and they are blocking visitors as much as they can, but the problem is they are so afraid that even the healthcare professionals cannot visit them and offer assistance. Scared, some groups are completely closed off, in a real lockdown.

‘Indigenous Peoples are part of those at high risk. We are facing an increasing problem of illegal mining and invaders in our lands in general. The media are reporting all the time about this horrible situation. There is no global and unified message to Indigenous Peoples. But there is a technical note to orient healthcare staff like us. Because of the lack of personal protection equipment and other basic materials, we cannot do much. Before attending to any emergency or request, we have to stay in quarantine, and other problems arise. The state must do more, especially with information, education and orientation. Coordinated action between agencies and organisations is necessary. Our communities are blocking visitors and staying safe.’

While Amazonas state is very often discussed, the other Indigenous regions feel abandoned.  Radio Yandê and other Indigenous media gathered Indigenous leaders and listeners to discuss the problem and raise awareness, but this is not enough. Even as the media continue to disseminate information, the problem mounts in the country and is also escalating among Indigenous Peoples. National daily Jornal do Brasil reported on 24 April that Indigenous leaders in the Amazon asked for international humanitarian aid in the face of abandonment and the risk they face in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘There are no doctors in our communities, there are no protective materials for this pandemic ... There is no support in the food issue,’ Jornal do Brasil cited José Gregorio Díaz from the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations in the Amazon Basin (COICA) as saying. COICA is the umbrella body of Indigenous organisations from the nine countries that share the largest tropical forest in the world.

Other sources are reporting that COVID-19 cases among Indigenous people have grown rapidly of late. On 25 April, the ISA monitoring system reported 85 confirmed cases and seven deaths. A study, ‘Demographic and Infrastructure Vulnerability Analysis of COVID-19 Indigenous Lands’, published on 24 April by researchers from four Brazilian universities affirms that out of the 34 DSEI units, there are six that have the highest degree of vulnerability, all in the Amazon region. High-risk Indigenous populations  include: Alto Rio Negro – 19,099 people; Yanomami – 25,972; Xavante – 19,213; Xingu – 6,704; Kaiapó do Pará – 4,559; Tapajós River – 6,074.

The researchers also point to the importance of the participation of Indigenous organisations in planning and implementing preventive actions against COVID-19. ‘They are the main actors, not just subjects of prevention programmes. It is people who do all kinds of prevention that they consider appropriate after obtaining all the information about Covid-19. So, any action to mitigate the vulnerability of Indigenous lands to the disease has to be done and acted out together with Indigenous organisations,’ the study concludes.

Increasing the danger: invisibility and deprivation

Because of structural problems and lack of resources, SESAI decided to not offer medical care to Indigenous people with COVID-19 symptoms in urban areas, only to those in Indigenous territories who might put their communities at risk. More than 300,000 Indigenous peoples live, work or study in the cities. Infected Indigenous individuals in the cities are not counted in the numbers of epidemiological monitoring agencies. This fact increases substantially the invisibility of Indigenous Peoples during this pandemic period.  

Indigenous Peoples are custodians of biodiversity, a role recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN group of experts on climate change. Amazonia is an area that contains an estimated 200 billion tons of carbon. Indigenous ways of natural resource management are successful. The rate of deforestation on Indigenous lands is less than half that recorded in other areas, but these communities are threatened by illegal activities and large agricultural projects promoted by governments.

While Indigenous Peoples have faced many serious challenges, the impacts of COVID-19 are unprecedented and terrifying; due to land and resource depletion, they cannot now flee and escape into their territories. Some depend on the state, and many communities live in poverty and near the cities.

To lessen the emotional suffering, I end this article with a poem. Imagination has a clear path to save us in these times, moving us towards action.

There is a valley of bones, old white bones, sighing bits of life...

And the birds dare to work out there... yearning over the valley

chasing a dirty urubu who scares the humans

everybody looks when a cricket rustled

through the bones reminding them that


is breaking through laughing  

*Third World Resurgence No. 343/344, 2020, pp 31-32