Without access to healthcare, indigenous communities in Mexico are putting strict measures in place to protect themselves
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By Oscar Lopez and Christine Murray
MEXICO CITY, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - I ndigenous communities across Mexico have installed blockades and imposed curfews in a bid to protect their isolated towns from the new coronavirus, leaders and local officials said.
In areas of at least five of the country's states there have been shutdowns in communities that are often used to self-organizing - whether by choice or necessity, according to community members and local news reports.
Mexico's health ministry has reported more than 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has killed about 480 people.
More than 70 of confirmed cases have been people that speak an indigenous language, and at least 13 have died, according to an open government database.
Often far from any hospitals and with limited healthcare, rural indigenous communities may be particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, said Ramon Martinez of advocacy group Forum for Sustainable Development.
"There are no (healthcare providers) - it's very precarious," said Martinez, who spent 10 years working with the indigenous Guarijio people in northern Mexico.
The government declared a health emergency on March 30, ordering non-essential businesses to close and asking the population to stay at home.
So far, it hasn't called for curfews or stopped flights in and out of the country.
But in the hills of Oaxaca state, a five-hour drive from the capital of the same name, local authorities in Santa Maria Yaviche agreed to stop anyone entering or leaving unless there is an emergency, and no one can be out after 9pm.
Anyone not following the rules in the town of fewer than 1,000 people face fines, according to a copy of the agreement seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"In our communities often we don't realize how bad the situation is, because we've always lived isolated and resolved problems in community and in solidarity," said Oswaldo Martinez, who hosts a radio show in Yaviche in the local Zapotec language.
The lockdown, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, "is a mechanism to make people aware of the seriousness of the situation".
Mexico's interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
About one-fifth of Mexico's population identifies as indigenous, according to government statistics body INEGI.
In the southwestern state of Michoacan, at least 10 indigenous Purepecha communities have restricted access to their towns amidst the pandemic, according to Pavel Guzman, a spokesman for the state's Supreme Indigenous Council.
"We're scared ... that the coronavirus will arrive," said Guzman. "Once it does, we won't be able to control it."
The head of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), Rosario Piedra, said in a phone interview that the institution was against towns shutting down of their own accord.
"There has to be free transit, human rights shouldn't be violated," she said, adding the CNDH was providing information on protection measures to indigenous areas.
Only 1.5% of Mexico's public hospital facilities are in rural areas, according to a 2018 report by the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), which measures poverty levels.
"If an infection arrives in the indigenous communities, then there's no ... medical institution that can contain the problem because the clinics don't even have basic supplies," said Guzman, the activist from Michoacan.
And there is little chance of these communities receiving help from authorities, he added: many towns don't even have running water, let alone the internet access required to apply for financial government assistance.
"These are historical problems, and now with the coronavirus ... they've become more critical," Guzman said.
After years of feeling abandoned by authorities, an increasing number of indigenous communities in Mexico have sought autonomy in recent years - many of these towns have been the first to restrict their borders.
In southern Chiapas state, the rebel Zapatista group ordered its villages to shut weeks before such measures were implemented by the federal government.
"Considering the frivolous irresponsibility and the lack of seriousness from bad governments ... (we've decided) to declare a red alert in our villages, communities and neighborhoods," the group said in a statement released on March 16.
With the U.S. and Mexican economies in a bind, many indigenous migrants who sought work elsewhere have been forced to return home to rural villages - potentially bringing the virus back with them.
That has created a dilemma for some indigenous communities trying to protect themselves. "Waves of people are coming back from all over: those who went to study, those who went to work ... they're all coming back," said Martinez, the indigenous rights advocate.
"In some cases, (indigenous communities) have even been hostile to their own migrants," he added.
(Reporting by Oscar Lopez and Christine Murray; editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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