Indigenous infections grew amid slow Brazil agency response
The Associated Press spoke to four agents who work with indigenous peoples in the farthest reaches of Brazil’s Amazon, and they were unanimous in their conclusion: The national Indian foundation, known as FUNAI, is hardly doing anything to coordinate a response to a crisis that could decimate ethnic groups
There’s not enough protective equipment for agents who enter indigenous territories or meet with native people in cities. Necessities like kerosene and gasoline are in short supply. Food deliveries only began last week — a month after indigenous people were instructed to remain in their villages — and remain vastly insufficient.
Since the pandemic’s onset, there has been fear about the vulnerability of native people who live far from urban health facilities and whose communal lifestyles render them susceptible to swift transmission.
At least 88 indigenous people have already died of COVID-19 in the Amazon, according to a tally by the Brazilian indigenous organization APIB that includes health ministry figures and information from local leaders. The count is likely higher, because hospitals often don’t use patients’ indigenous names when admitting them.
“The environment of COVID-19 is so grave, because integration alone is bad, but in the context of a pandemic is genocide,” Bigonha said in a telephone interview.
CIMI, a Catholic group that defends indigenous rights, condemned FUNAI’s policies for failing to safeguard native peoples. FUNAI fired back, attacking what it called “socialist public policies” implemented since 2003 by the leftist Workers’ Party that it maintained made indigenous people dependent on welfare.
Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, famous for his work with indigenous tribes, drafted a manifesto warning of imminent threat to native peoples and calling on Brazil’s government to take action to protect them. It drew 245,000 signatories, including Paul McCartney, Meryl Streep, film director Pedro Almodóvar and model Gisele Bündchen.
FUNAI’s response was swift: It returned photographs Salgado had taken of the Korubo people in the isolated Javari Valley, near the Peruvian border, along with a statement recommending Salgado auction them to buy food, personal hygiene products and cleaning goods for indigenous people.
Agents on the ground, including three employed by FUNAI, told a different story. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fears of retribution after several officials in the Bolsonaro administration were fired or reassigned after talking to reporters.
There’s no leadership from above and requests sent to FUNAI headquarters in Brasilia go unanswered for weeks, they said.
But as long as there aren’t enough food kits delivered, the tribes won’t stay on their lands, the agents said. Little agriculture is possible when rivers flood the Upper Solimoes and Upper Negro regions, and the vast majority sell or trade what they fish and hunt.
FUNAI’s Rio Negro regional coordinator, Auri de Oliveira, said the chief problem wasn’t shortage of food, but indigenous people traveling to nearby cities to receive emergency coronavirus cash aid from the government. He said the food kit delays were due to “normal bureaucracy” and they have started arriving.
While some food aid is arriving it’s not enough: One tribal leader in the Upper Solimoes region said by phone Friday his village received food kits for only 90 of its more than 700 families.
Brazil’s health ministry said in a statement that the hard-hit cities of Tabatinga and São Gabriel da Cachoeira received some help on Monday. A hospital in Tabatinga got another 10 ventilators and 15,000 masks, among other items. Another unit in Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira received eight ventilators and 11 health-care professionals are coming from Brasilia.
Brazil’s shortcomings in fighting the pandemic in the Amazon are worrying its neighbors. Colombian President Ivan Duque deployed the military to its border with Brazil after a surge of COVID-19 cases. About 8,000 indigenous people live near the Colombian border town of Leticia, where cases have shot up in recent weeks.
The Javari Valley is home to the biggest concentration of isolated indigenous peoples in the world, including 10 groups, according to FUNAI. Hospitals near Javari’s isolated tribes are overcrowded, said one FUNAI agent, who offered a stark warning: If the virus hits harder, collapse will be quick.
Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro.
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