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Lack of clean water leaves Brazil indigenous reserve exposed to coronavirus

by Mauricio Angelo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 21 April 2020 16:04 GMT

Members of the Guarani Kaiowá indigenous tribe who live in the Dourados Indigenous Reserve, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. HANDOUT/Tiago Miotto/Indigenist Missionary Council

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Overcrowded and impoverished, the Guarani Kaiowa lack the most effectively weapon against getting coronavirus: clean running water

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By Mauricio Angelo

BRASILIA, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Brazil's most populous indigenous reserve, the Guarani Kaiowa people live in fear of catching the novel coronavirus, knowing they have no access to one of the most effective weapons against spreading the infection: running water.

No family in the Dourados Indigenous Reserve has a constant source of water, say community members, as their supply is interrupted several times a day or stops completely for days.

That makes it impossible for them to regularly wash their hands in an effort to prevent contagion if the virus arrives.

Indigenous health experts say the lack of clean water in the Dourados reserve makes the community - which already suffers from high rates of tuberculosis and malnutrition - especially vulnerable to illness.

"Most families do not have a reservoir to store water. How are you going to wash your hands?" asked Fernando Terena, 52, who sits on the local health council.

"Families are exposed. It is a big risk," he said. "If the virus enters the community, it will be a very critical situation."


Health experts warn that the spreading virus could be lethal for Brazil's estimated 900,000 indigenous people.

The Guarani Kaiowa's reserve sits in an urban area in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, just 5 km (3 miles) from the city of Dourados.

The city has a population of about 210,000 and only about 30 intensive-care beds in its public health system for patients with coronavirus, according to the city hall.

Brazil has reported more than 40,500 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.

But due to a shortage of tests across the country, a study by a consortium of Brazilian universities and institutes showed the real number of cases was likely to be at least 12 times higher than the government's figures.

More than 170 of the confirmed cases have been in Mato Grosso do Sul.

So far, none have been among the state's indigenous communities, made up mainly of the Guarani Kaiowa - the second-largest indigenous group in the country - as well as Terena and Guarani Nhandeva people.

Across Brazil, at least three indigenous people have died of COVID-19, according to data from the Health Ministry's indigenous health service SESAI.

A spokeswoman for SESAI told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the ministry had sent 280 rapid tests to Mato Grosso do Sul for the indigenous people in the state.

Anyone on the reserve with flu-like symptoms is told to follow government recommendations to stay at home for at least 14 days, said health workers in Dourados.

But with about 18,000 people on 3,500 hectares (8,600 acres) of land, if any were to catch the virus, its spread within the community would be swift and devastating, said Terena.

He said a highway cuts across the area, and that his entire family lives on the reserve.

While Brazil has issued stay-at-home orders for part of the population and restricted travel between states, traffic within states remains at near-normal levels.

That means a constant flow of outsiders travelling through the reserve, increasing the risk of virus spread, Terena said.

"It is my life and the life of my family that is exposed," he said.

Members of the Guarani Kaiowá indigenous tribe who live in the Dourados Indigenous Reserve, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. HANDOUT/Tiago Miotto/Indigenist Missionary Council


Indianara Machado Ramires Guarani Kaiowa, 29, an indigenous nurse and activist who coordinates a health team in Dourados, said the lack of clean, running water has historically been one of the biggest obstacles to keeping the community healthy.

Like indigenous peoples across Brazil, the communities in Mato Grosso do Sul have struggled with poverty and conflict since the country's 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

The Guarani Kaiowa are regularly displaced by agribusiness, loggers and drug traffickers, and violent clashes are common, leaving them with barely enough land to survive, Ramires added.

The reserve suffers from chronic lack of investment and persistent delays in government plans to properly demarcate traditional lands in the area, said the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group.

That has left indigenous communities living in "inhumane situations", it said in a 2014 report.

Without a reliable water supply, residents of the Dourados reserve - who are mainly either subsistence farmers or factory workers in the city - get their water from artesian wells, as well as rivers, springs and even standing water.

Eliseu Lopes Guarani Kaiowa, head of Aty Guasu, an indigenous assembly in the region, said people usually have to walk for hours to get water.

And the water they collect is often contaminated by the pesticides used in surrounding soy plantations, leading to further health problems, he added.

"We have had reports that many families (have to use) water contaminated by pesticides, even storing their water in empty containers of the poison," Lopes said. "Some end up resorting to dirty water."

At the same time, the reserve's population is booming, growing by about 300 people each year, which puts more strain on the water supply, noted nurse Ramires.


A spokesman for the health ministry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation there are eight contracts in place to expand and improve the water supply in Mato Grosso do Sul.

Of the 4.5 million reais ($860,000) being invested in those systems, 1.3 million is earmarked for improving the water infrastructure specifically for indigenous people in the Dourados region, he added.

The work there is due to be completed in December 2020, he noted, and both Ramires and Terena confirmed that construction on the system in the reserve had begun.

For now, however, Flavio Vicente Machado, a missionary with CIMI who has lived in Mato Grosso do Sul for more than 10 years, likened the situation in Dourados to that of a refugee camp.

"They are people who have been forcibly displaced and forced to live in a place without any (chance of) subsistence," he said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Machado said he would like to see the government build a field hospital with intensive-care beds on the reserve.

"If COVID-19 enters the reserve, it will be a disaster," he said.

"The Guarani people already suffer racism in the city's health system, and it will be no different with the coronavirus. This is why a specialised hospital is necessary."

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(Reporting by Mauricio Angelo; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. 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/climate)

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