The indigenous tribes of Brazil should be safer than the rest of the population of this country badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, as their lands are said to be protected from unauthorized entry.
Instead, the new coronavirus is spreading dangerously across their territories: according to the Indigenous Health Secretariat, more than 8,000 indigenous people living in villages have developed Covid-19 and 184 have died.
Indigenous people and human rights activists accuse the Brazilian government of being incompetent, and the local authorities of not wanting to protect this population against the coronavirus. The miners or illegal gold miners who regularly invade protected areas and the carers sent by the government are accused of being the main vectors of contamination.
In the spring, the tribes tried for weeks to protect their territories from the virus, asking for donations and waiting for the government to provide them with food aid so that they could stay away from the ‘epidemic. According to the defenders of the natives, few tribes were able to benefit from this aid.
Emergency aid refused by Bolsonaro
Since then, indigenous leaders have called on the state to take urgent measures to protect its people from the devastating consequences of this crisis, the scale of which is difficult to predict.
However, on Wednesday July 8, President Jair Bolsonaro vetoed laws that would have forced the government to provide indigenous people with access to clean water, intensive care beds specially reserved for the pandemic, and free distribution of basic necessities. This would result in additional spending which is “contrary to the public interest“, said the president.
The Socio-environmental Institute, a non-governmental organization specializing in environmental and social issues, described the head of state’s decision as “criminal“.
In early July, the Brazilian prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the possible endangerment of the Yanomami and Yekwana populations in the northern state of Roraima, during a mission of military medical workers on June 30 and 1. July.
In the presence of around twenty journalists, including AFP, the soldiers carried out tests and distributed masks, which were allegedly made without the prior authorization of the natives and in violation of the rules of physical distancing. AFP, for its part, assures that its journalists were tested shortly before the mission and that they took all the necessary precautions.
Junio Yanomami, chairman of the Yanomami Indigenous Health Council, who filed the complaint, said the tribe could have been exposed to Covid-19 during this mission. As he explained to the prosecutor, isolated natives are extremely vulnerable to outside pathogens. This is why the contacts imposed by the mission could be considered as a crime in violation of public health rules.
He also expressed concern about the distribution of hydrochloroquine tablets during the mission because, he says, their effectiveness against the coronavirus has not been proven. Hydrochloroquine, constantly advocated by far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who also caught Covid-19, is however recommended by the Brazilian Ministry of Health.
Brazilian Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo, who was monitoring the mission of military doctors in the protected areas, said that the spread of the pandemic among indigenous communities was under control.
Brazil, with its population of 212 million, is the second country most affected by the pandemic in the world. Nearly 1.7 million people were infected with the coronavirus, which killed more than 68,000 people.