In Brazil's Amazon, indigenous people fear surge in COVID-19 deaths

by Fabio Teixeira | @ffctt | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 19 January 2021 17:03 GMT

A gravedigger buries Joao Castro, 64, an indigenous man of the Satere Mawe ethnicity, after he passed away due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Parque Taruma cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, January 8, 2021. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Image Caption and Rights Information

As hospitals struggle to cope in hard-hit jungle city of Manaus, some villagers prefer to take their chances at home

Coronavirus is changing the world in unprecedented ways. Subscribe here for a daily briefing on how this global crisis is affecting cities, technology, approaches to climate change, and the lives of vulnerable people.

By Fabio Teixeira

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With hospitals overflowing and oxygen supplies running low, indigenous leader Joilson Karapana fears a second wave of COVID-19 deaths in the Brazilian city of Manaus could prove even more devastating for his tribal community.

When the coronavirus pandemic swept the Amazon metropolis last year, several of Karapana's close relatives and members of his 50-strong tribe died from the disease and more have recently fallen ill.

"I lost my brother, my father, my cousin, my aunts and other people I knew," said Karapana, whose community lives in Parque das Tribos - an indigenous urban settlement of about 3,000 people in hard-hit Manaus, capital of Amazonas state.

"Now we have about five or six people short of breath, with pain all over their bodies. It's a worrying situation," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Brazil's Air Force flew oxygen cylinders into the jungle city last week as desperate relatives protested outside hospitals, saying patients had been taken off ventilators as oxygen supplies ran out.

Some of the sick were airlifted to other states as locals scrambled to buy oxygen on the black market to help their loved ones, according to media reports.

For the roughly 30,000 indigenous people who live in Manaus and rely on public healthcare, the situation is especially alarming, said Marcivana Satere-Mawe, head of the Coordination of Indigenous Peoples in Manaus and Surroundings (Copime).

"If we have to buy oxygen for our elders to survive, they will die. We have no income," Marcivana said by phone.

The city's government and the SESAI service, which provides health services in indigenous reservations, did not reply to a request for comment.

Amazonas's government gave its first COVID-19 vaccine shot on Monday to an indigenous nurse in Parque das Tribos, saying frontline health workers and indigenous people in reservations would be the priority for vaccinations, a statement said.

'MORE DIFFICULT EACH DAY'

Brazil has registered 210,000 deaths from COVID-19, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University, the second-highest toll after the United States.

The dead include 926 indigenous people, according to a tally by the indigenous umbrella organization APIB.

Grim headlines from Manaus mean some indigenous people living in reservations in the surrounding forest are unwilling to be taken to the city if they fall sick, preferring to take their chances with rudimentary local care.

"We had a case of an indigenous woman here with COVID, but she's being treated here" said Maria Alice da Silva Paulino, an indigenous teacher at Yupiranga Village, near Manaus.

"She didn't want to be transferred because of the deaths, the lack of oxygen."

Sahu da Silva, a leader of the Sahu-Ape indigenous community near Manaus, said the only option was to treat people locally and hope for the best.

He said three members of his tribe were currently sick with COVID-19 symptoms.

"Whenever one gets better, another one falls ill," he said. "We are in this fight, (but) it's getting more difficult each day."

Related stories:

South America's indigenous people lock down as coronavirus takes hold

Descendants of slaves in Brazil count their dead from COVID-19   

'You wake up well': Amazon villagers take vine tea to treat COVID

(Reporting by Fabio Teixeira @ffctt; Editing by Helen Popper. 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)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.