How Bolsonaro has left Brazil’s Indigenous people vulnerable in the pandemic

On March 31, Suzane da Silva Pereira was the first Indigenous Brazilian to test positive for coronavirus. She is a member of the Kokama people, who live deep in the Amazon rainforest, on the shore of the Solimões River, bordering Colombia and Peru.

Two months later, the Kokama had registered the highest number of Covid-19 deaths among Indigenous people in Brazil: Nearly 60 people, according to Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB), a national nonprofit organization. Among them was the Kokama leader Messias Kokama.

Many Kokama villages, which are accessible only by boat, have implemented checkpoints to keep out non-Indigenous people during the pandemic. However, the hospital in Tabatinga, the nearest city with the most infrastructure to treat patients, is overwhelmed — meaning those in greater need must be taken to Manaus, almost 700 miles away, by plane.

Meanwhile, Indigenous leaders across the country say federal government agencies have not provided them with sufficient support to combat this pandemic — like universal access to food and health care, which are guaranteed by federal law, and enough protection in their lands so they can isolate without the threat of being invaded (and infected with coronavirus from land grabbers).

“We are calling on this government, or lack of government, to be held responsible for the death of our people, and asking the federal attorney’s office to help us get compensation all the deaths in our Kokama family due to Covid-19,” Edney Samias, one of the Kokama’s caciques, or leaders, told me.

Brazil has almost 900,000 Indigenous people, of over 300 different ethnicities. Around 64 percent live in Indigenous areas — lands that, by the Constitution, are supposed to be owned and exclusively enjoyed by Indigenous people and currently make up 14 percent of the country’s square footage. Over 180,000 Indigenous people live in the state of Amazonas, where the Kokama reside, which has been the hardest-hit area in cases per capita.

According to official figures reported by the Health Ministry’s Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI), nearly 4,200 Indigenous people have tested positive for Covid-19, and almost 120 have died. However, the death estimates from Indigenous communities and groups are much higher: Over 320 deaths — 144 in Amazonas alone — as of June 20, further showing the disconnect between Indigenous people and the government’s response.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently minimized the dangers of Covid-19, describing it as “a little cold” and calling alarm over the pandemic “hysterical.” He has undermined isolation orders imposed by state governors, called for the country to reopen despite the growing outbreak and even personally attended anti-lockdown protests. In the meantime, Brazil reached more than 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases last weekend.

Bolsonaro’s lack of coordinated response to Covid-19, coupled with his desire to reopen the economy too quickly, has positioned Brazil to become the next epicenter of the pandemic. And now Indigenous people have to rely on a government that neglects them — and on a president who wants to “integrate” them into the rest of the society.

The coronavirus outbreak in Brazil has skyrocketed in recent weeks

Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak has soared since the first case to be confirmed was reported in late February: Not only are there over a million confirmed positive cases, there are nearly 51,000 reported deaths in the country, as of June 22. However, due to the lack of widespread testing, the numbers are likely far higher — the latest national study estimates cases are at least seven times higher than officially reported.

In the first week of June, the government temporarily stopped publishing overall data on Covid-19 cases and deaths, and only the ones of the day-of. The move — called by Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes a “maneuver of totalitarian regimes” — was quickly overruled, but it showed Brazil has further isolated itself from the rest of the world during the pandemic.

The worst affected area in cases per capita is the state of Amazonas — 64.1 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to around 24.1 nationwide, according to the Health Ministry on June 21. In Manaus, which is the closest big city for many Indigenous communities and their place of last resort for medical treatment, the public health care system collapsed between April and May.

Witoto nursing assistant Vanda Ortega, 32, wears a mask with the slogan “Indigenous People’s Lives Matter” while caring for a patient in the Parque das Tribos, an Indigenous community in the suburbs of Manaus, Amazonas State, Brazil, on May 3, 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ricardo Oliveira/AFP via Getty Images

The city has made international headlines due to its cemeteries and funeral services being grotesquely overwhelmed. New trenches were dug and refrigerated containers installed to accommodate the spike in deaths. One family even reportedly had to bury their father themselves because of the lack of gravediggers.

According to a study published by the Federal University of Amazonas this month, Manaus will be the first Brazilian city to “beat” the coronavirus, projecting a drastic reduction in the speed of deaths in the city since peaks in the past couple months. However, cases are moving to rural areas, where most Indigenous communities are located. In June, one-third of reported cases happened outside of capitals and metropolitan regions.

Samias said Kokama people are scared to go to hospitals and die away from their families, and many would rather die at home. “My uncle Idelfonso Tananta told me he would rather die hugging his children, grandchildren, and wife,” he recounted. “And that day eventually came.”

After visiting a doctor and being told to isolate at home, Tananta continued to get worse. “One evening he started feeling really sick and out of breath, he went to the bathroom and collapsed there. They put him in the hammock and he fell on the floor, where he took his last breath, hugged his children and wife, smiled, and died.”

Samias also mentioned that after people stopped going to hospitals, the number of deaths decreased. “Only those with below 40 percent [oxygen] saturation go to the hospital. Other than that, they are being treated with traditional medication and Ayahuasca.”

Since April, as cases among Indigenous people began to appear, the governor of Amazonas and both former health ministers have promised to build a hospital dedicated exclusively to Indigenous people. And on May 25, the Health Ministry announced the inauguration of a wing for Indigenous people in a hospital in Manaus dedicated exclusively for Covid-19 patients.

However, those Indigenous people living outside of Indigenous areas cannot be admitted into the wing. These people (36 percent of Indigenous people in the country live in urban areas) are also not allowed to be treated by Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts (DSEIs) — which are SESAI’s primary care networks within Indigenous areas — and must depend on the country’s universal health care system or military hospitals.

In Tabatinga, Samias’s father faced this problem. Since he lived in the outskirts of Tabatinga, he had to be taken to a military hospital and was put on a list to be transferred to Manaus. For days, Samias waited for a plane to arrive, but was never given a clear timeline of when or even if it would happen. The doctor “told me it depends on the government and can’t inform me if it’s coming or not. We’re counting on luck.”

When patients do finally get to a hospital, many are not counted as Indigenous. “This for us is very worrisome because we have Indigenous [people] in an urban context for a variety of reasons: They came for work, to study, cities have expanded into their villages. And when they are going to hospitals, they are accounted as normal citizens … because there is no Indigenous ethnicity on forms,” Guajajara said.

This helps explain the discrepancy in official reported cases and deaths among the Brazilian Indigenous population and those from Indigenous groups. And the problem with not having accurate numbers is that it leads to a lack of necessary measures to fight the spread of the virus.

Shortcomings of the Brazilian government’s support

The contingency plan to protect native communities during the pandemic, many criticized, didn’t address the specific local needs of each Indigenous community, nor the shortage of resources in the entire country: It relied on DSEIs to develop and carry out their own detailed plans.

The problem with DSEIs is not only are they dependent on SESAI for purchases of materials — like PPE and fuel — but they also most lack infrastructure for even basic care, let alone coronavirus testing and treatment.

Carlos Alberto Llevado is a Cuban doctor who from 2013 to 2016 worked in São Gabriel da Cachoeira in Alto Rio Negro (a region with one of the largest populations of Indigenous people in the country) as part of a federal government program implemented by former President Dilma Rousseff that placed medical professionals in marginalized communities throughout Brazil.

He recalled worrisome conditions in the districts he worked in due to mismanagement of funds and lack of government oversight. “I remember a photo of the ceiling [of a health center] filled with bats, and their feces dripping down the walls,” Llevado told me.

In 2009, only 63 percent of the overall Indigenous population in Brazil, and 35.5 percent of those within Indigenous areas, had access to clean water, according to the government. Llevado said that of the few places that had water storage containers, many didn’t have tops, and would consequently have animal waste in them. “I visited communities that had never seen clear water before — they only used river water. As the name says, Alto Rio Negro [Black River], the water looks like watered wine.”

A sign reads “We are temporarily not receiving visitors” in Portuguese at the main entrance to the Indigenous Mata Verde Bonita Village in Maricá, Brazil, on May 26, 2020.
Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Beyond health care, many families have to travel great lengths and stand in long lines to receive social benefits, such as Bolsa Familia — a federal government program launched in 2003 to provide financial aid to poor families in the country, and was estimated to serve over 100,000 Indigenous families in 2014.

Before stay-at-home orders were enacted in the Solimões region on March 22, many Kokama were still traveling to cities to get their benefits, where they were likely exposed to the virus. “The decree came too late,” said Glades Rodrigues, the president of the nonprofit organization Kokama-kukamiria Indigenous Federation of the People of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. “A lot were already infected because of the due date to receive benefits and salaries. And everyone comes to the city, since there are no banks in our communities.”

Since people are being told to stay at home and can no longer travel to cities to get their aid, the delivery of food baskets (known as cestas basicas) — which provide products like rice, beans, coffee, and oil — to these communities is urgently asked for.

“At this time, we need food baskets to be taken to our communities, not the emergency assistance money,” Samias said, echoing what Indigenous leaders have been asking from the government. “Through donations we’re able to, little by little, give food baskets to hungry families, since they couldn’t get the emergency assistance.”

To help address this problem, the Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, announced the delivery of over 310,000 food baskets to 154,000 Indigenous families beginning in May, with the help of the National Indian Foundation (Funai) — which is in charge of protecting and promoting the rights of Indigenous people, including health, education and land demarcations — as well as the National Supply Company (Conab), linked to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The purchase of these food baskets is being done by the Conab with money from the ministry and the delivery done by the 39 regional units of Funai, which told me they would use “preventive measures guided by the health agencies in order for the action to take place in a safe and effective manner” — but have not detailed what the preventive measures are nor the logistics for delivery.

In a press conference on June 9, Alves said that the baskets were purchased and that in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, all destined baskets had arrived. The Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro has said they weren’t officially notified of the operation and have no information of where these baskets were delivered. APIB has demanded that the ministry officially inform what communities received deliveries, “in order to prove the veracity of the information given.”

As of June 14, just over 105,000 baskets of the 310,000 promised had been delivered.

On top of that, experts fear that the scrapping of Funai over the years, which under Bolsonaro suffered a 40 percent cut in the government’s 2020 budget, increases the risk that Indigenous people will not be properly cared for during the pandemic.

From the additional 10.8 million Brazilian reals ($2 million) in emergency funds Funai received from the federal government to be used in the fight against the pandemic, almost 10 percent was spent for the purchase of new vehicles and maintenance of ones they already had.

But there’s another layer to this problem: Bolsonaro’s pick for the head of Funai in July 2019, Marcelo Xavier da Silva — who, shortly after taking the post, said Indigenous land demarcation would stop being based on “ideological” criteria. He also has strong ties with Nabhan Garcia, a senior agriculture minister, who “froths hate for Indigenous people,” according to da Silva’s predecessor, General Franklimberg de Freitas.

“We used to have structural problems with Funai. Now, we also have ideological problems,” said Guajajara.

In April, for example, Funai set new rules for issuing Declarations of Recognition of Land Limits, which forced landowners to respect the boundaries between their lands and those of the Indigenous peoples (even if those lands were still in the process of official demarcation). Under new guidance, Funai will only issue the declaration for reserves and Indigenous lands approved or regularized by presidential decree.

This directly impacts Indigenous people’s safety, given there are currently 237 areas waiting for official demarcation, which are now at risk of being sold, divided, or invaded in the middle of a pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s dark history with Indigenous people

Going back to his campaign days in 2018, Bolsonaro has made clear his intentions to open up the Amazon for commerce and extinguish territorial protections for Indigenous populations. During his first year as president, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose to its highest in a decade, according to data from Brazil’s space research agency (INPE) — coinciding with efforts to scale back the fight against illegal mining, logging, and ranching.

Invasions in Indigenous lands also hit a record in 2019 — according to an analysis by CIMI (Indigenist Missionary Council), there were 160 cases of “possessory invasions, illegal exploitation of natural resources and various damage to property” in Indigenous areas, an increase of 40 percent compared to the previous year.

And yet, Bolsonaro has said that as long as he is president “there [will be] no demarcation of Indigenous lands.” On the second day of his mandate, Bolsonaro tried to transfer the right to land demarcation from Funai to the Ministry of Agriculture — a move that stoked fears that preserved areas would be opened up to greater commercial exploration and controlled by interests opposed to environmental preservation. The decision was eventually overruled by the Supreme Court.

And in the midst of the pandemic, deforestation in the Amazon increased over 50 percent in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same period last year. Indigenous lands are also being invaded, coinciding with the lack of oversight in the rainforest and the exoneration of two inspection chiefs from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources after a massive operation in April to remove illegal loggers and miners from Indigenous lands in the state of Pará.

In the absence of leadership from the government, NGOs, public figures, and politicians have spoken out. In a letter to the World Health Organization on April 23, the Mixed Parliamentary Front in Defense of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — a caucus launched in 2019 to further Indigenous rights in Brazil’s Congress — called for specific measures, like an emergency fund for Indigenous people to ensure their protection during the pandemic.

Joenia Wapixana, the first Indigenous woman elected as a federal deputy in Congress, is working with other parliamentarians to strengthen the contingency plan for Indigenous people in Brazil.

In March, she proposed a bill for additional resources to the Indigenous Health Care Subsystem, providing monetary aid, an increase in health care infrastructures to handle those in need of hospitalization, and the strengthening of territorial protections.

The bill was approved in Congress with some modifications, such as guaranteeing the stay of missionaries in areas of isolated communities and restricting aid to Indigenous who live in villages — a move that was vehemently criticized by Indigenous groups. It is currently awaiting presidential authorization.

Indigenous leaders say Bolsonaro’s government still needs to do more. “There is an action from the government, but it is insufficient to meet current needs or demand. And then it is up to us, the Indigenous people, to put this pressure on the responsible bodies so that they can implement what was already authorized. But we cannot assume this responsibility that belongs to the government,” Guajajara told me.

In the meantime, Indigenous people are suffering. Kokama received food baskets from Funai in mid-May, but are still heavily relying on donations of food and hygiene products for those in need. On May 14, Edney Samias’s father died while he was still waiting to be taken to Manaus. The last time Samias had seen his dad was when he was admitted to the hospital.

“I’m tired of speaking, I don’t know what to say anymore,” Samias told me. “But we are here, asking the world to listen, to hear our cry.”

Mariana Castro is a Brazilian journalist based in New York City. Find her on Twitter @marianabacastro.

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