There is nowhere left to hide from the novel coronavirus. Even the Amazon rainforestâ€”one of the most remote wilderness areas in the world’s now riddled with infection. Tragically, COVID-19 is also devastating fragile indigenous communities in the region, putting entire cultures and population groups at risk.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) estimates that there are at least 20,000 active coronavirus cases in the Amazon Basin, which is the world’s largest watershed and home to many indigenous communities, including isolated tribes who survive without sustained contact with the outside world.
The PAHO warned last week that indigenous peoples who live both in isolated villages with minimal access to health services, and in densely populated cities will suffer a disproportionate impactâ€ if steps aren’t taken rapidly to mitigate the pandemic.
So far, those steps don’t seem likely to be taken soon, if at all. Regional leaders and far-right populists like Colombia’s Ivan Duque and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have modeled themselves on U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive insouciance. They have taken hard stands against financial relief efforts and spending for health-care infrastructure to curb the outbreak, while also downplaying the crisis for political gain.
One of the regions singled out by the PAHO as particularly hard hit is the Colombian state of Amazonas, which sits on the border with Brazil, one of the world leaders in coronavirus infections. Testing in that country of 212 million is very limited and, according to the Worldometer counts, of the roughly 735,000 people who have received tests, nearly 350,000 cases (or 47 percent) have turned up positive. There have been more than 22,000 deaths, and that number is expected to increase exponentially. Such is the spread of the disease in Brazil at the point that on Sunday the Trump administration imposed a travel ban.
“South America has become the new epicenter for the disease” Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, told a press conference on Friday.
Colombia has closed and militarized the frontier with Brazil to try to prevent an influx of transmissions. But ongoing boat traffic on the Amazon, as well as a vast network of clandestine jungle trails, still make for a porous boundary and a rapidly spiraling case count.
Julio Lopez, president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon [OPIAC], has said native tribes in the area are at risk of â€œexterminationâ€ due to the health crisis.
“We could be faced with the disappearance of whole cultures. Our elders are dying. Our very way of life is at risk, he told The Daily Beast. Due to the lockdown, the fields go untended and we can’t work them. So what will we eat when the rainy season comes”
OPIAC’s headquarters is in Amazonas capital of Leticia, a city of about 50,000 people at a juncture on the river called Tres Fronteras (Three Frontiers) where Colombia, Brazil, and Peru all meet. Because ethnic peoples lived here long before national boundaries were drawn, they typically pay little attention to such artificial divisions within their ancestral lands. Indeed, families often live on one side of the triple border and work subsistence farms on another. Such conditions have already contributed to the collapse of the health-care system in Amazonas and a scarcity of available graves in Leticia.
The government is taking precautions now, but it’s too little too late,â€ Lopez says. “They put soldiers out on the streets to control the official crossings, but the frontier is immense. There’s no way to patrol it all.”
Amazonas urban-dwelling indigenous population remains dependent on shipments of rice, grain, and other basic goods from deep inside Brazil. The cross-border traffic means Amazonas has the worst per capita infection rate in all of Colombia, while also being one of the most ill-equipped and impoverished states in this Andean nation.
“The situation in Amazonas is worrisome due to the concentration of cases [and] because resources are quite limited,” says Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez-Morales, a senior researcher with the Colombian Association of Infectious Diseases. He says the per capita case count for Amazonas is 9.5 times greater than Cartagena district and 22 times higher than Bogota.
The lack of test kits and lab equipment in Amazonas means the true infection rate is probably much higher than government figures indicate. Similarly, the official death toll in the municipal seat of Leticia sits at 35 so far, but medical staff say there are dozens more uninvestigated fatalities that are likely linked to the outbreak. The city has just one small hospital and no intensive care units. There was a single ventilator in Leticia, according to Lopez, but it is now broken.
The growing number of victims in the city and outlying areas belong to a variety of ethnic groups, including the Huitoto, Moru, Ocaina, and Bora.