In his first act since testing positive for COVID-19 two days ago, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro yesterday vetoed 16 sections of a law designed to protect the nation’s indigenous communities from the virus which has killed at least 68,000 Brazilians to date.
The president has accepted part of the law which seeks indigenous people to be classed as “groups in a situation of extreme vulnerability”. Yet recognition of the vulnerability of these communities did not extend into Bolsonaro’s attitude towards other sections of the law, as the president vetoed obligations on the federal government to provide hospital beds, intensive care units, ventilators, and blood oxygenation machines to indigenous peoples with COVID-19. Additional vetoes by the president prevent mandatory emergency funding for local governments to provide healthcare to their indigenous populations, as well as assistance with internet access and information on the virus. Also dismissed were calls for the free distribution of food, hygiene, and disinfectant materials.
In explanation of vetoing the provisions, the president’s office stated that the provisions in the law were “against the public interest” and would have a “budgetary and financial impact that would be unconstitutional”. Brazilian Indigenous advocacy group Instituto Sociambiental (ISA) have immediately hit back at the president’s decision, which they described as “criminal”, arguing that “the vetoes deny the minimum necessary for the survival of these communities (…) [and] reveal that the president plans to have no plan at all. At this point, their repeated omission characterizes a genocidal stance”. ISA then called on Congress to overturn the vetoes, which, with sufficient will, is possible.
Relationships between Bolsonaro and the indigenous population of Brazil have always been hostile. Bolsonaro is an advocate of commercial usage of indigenous land and instances of illegal mining and logging on indigenous land have risen since Bolsonaro came into office, causing protest, anger, and distrust.
Brazil’s indigenous population, which numbers around 850,000, is a section of Brazilian society that has proven particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This is because indigenous populations face health inequalities such as a higher rate of unmet health needs, poor local infrastructure, and difficulty accessing hospitals. According to Brazil’s principal indigenous federation, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), there are already 10,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst the indigenous population, including more than 400 deaths. Figures from APIB also show the death rate amongst indigenous people to be 9.1%, almost double that of the general Brazilian population, which stands at 5.2%.
It is not a stretch for ISA to describe Bolsonaro’s decision as a “genocidal stance”. Indigenous communities in Brazil are facing an existential threat from COVID-19, and Bolsonaro’s wilful inaction is aiding this process. Congress must overturn these vetoes to begin to properly protect the nation’s indigenous communities.
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