The Impact Of COVID-19 On Brazil’s Indigenous Populations

In September, the Brazilian government flew in general practice doctors as well as a reported 39 tons of food, medicine, and protective equipment to the Guajajara, one of Brazil’s prominent indigenous tribes, according to Reuters. This followed critiques of mishandling the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous populations. With a death toll of over 137,000, Brazil has one of the highest COVID-19 deaths worldwide, second only to the U.S.

While this was an important step, indigenous leaders, including tribal spokesperson Yuthai Guajajara, have stated that indigenous peoples need more access to healthcare if they are going to effectively fight the virus.

The impact of  COVID-19 on indigenous peoples magnifies preexisting inequalities and governmental failings in nations across the globe. According to the United Nations, indigenous peoples in most countries are categorized in the most vulnerable health category. This includes malnutrition, poor access to clean water and sanitation, as well as lack of medical care.

These issues have been further exacerbated within the context of Brazil. Brazil’s leader, President Bolsonaro, has a particularly insidious precedent in his dealings with Brazil’s many indigenous peoples. Since his election in 2019, Bolsonaro has relaxed environmental regulation, opened up indigenous reserves to mining, and turned a blind eye to increases in Amazonian forest fires and influx of poachers. According to Robert Muggah, of the Rio de Janeiro-based think tank the Igarapé Institute, “Under [Bolsonaro’s] watch, illegal land clearances, illicit deforestation, and wildcat mining have soared.”

Indigenous populations in Brazil have existed with varying degrees of isolation. Some groups are disseminated throughout Brazilian society while others remain completely separate from the outside world. For many of these more isolated groups, the increases in illegal mining and deforestation could prove dire. Starting in the 1960s and through to the 1980s, the Yanomamo population, an isolated indigenous group popularized in academia by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, was nearly decimated by a measles outbreak introduced by illegal miners encroaching on their land. This is a story as old as colonialism itself. When two populations interact they have the ability to share more than culture and economy, including disease.

Some indigenous populations like the Yanomamo already have an autoimmune disadvantage during the best of times. However, this combination of encroachment of illegal miners brought on by poor environmental regulation and global pandemic could prove deadly for Brazil’s many indigenous communities. According to Bernard Mello Franco, a Brazilian columnist, “Indigenous people have lived with epidemics brought by the white man since the 16th century… Now, with the arrival of coronavirus, the threat is back.”

On a local level, the Brazilian government needs to recognize and include the leaders of Brazil’s many indigenous groups and work in tandem with them to create and support an effective COVID-19 response. Many of these communities have already worked to stymie the impact of the virus by closing themselves off to outsiders. The Brazilian government needs to aid indigenous populations by cracking down on illegal miners and by properly enforcing environmental protocols.

Additionally, the Brazilian government as well as the United Nations and various NGOs need to provide enhanced medical care to these communities. While the Brazilian government did send doctors to test several tribes for COVID-19, there needs to be a greater response in terms of holistic medical care that values indigenous perspectives. The key to this solution is the respect and validation of indigenous autonomy. Prior to enacting any of these programs, free and informed consent of these groups is needed. In order to fight the virus, governmental and indigenous communities need to work together to create public health policies and environmental regulations that ensure the health and safety of Brazil’s indigenous peoples.