CALI, Colombia—There is nowhere left to hide from the novel coronavirus. Even the Amazon rainforest—one of the most remote wilderness areas in the world—is 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 impact” 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 Iván Duque and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have modeled themselves on U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive insouciance. They’ve 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 López, president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon [OPIAC], has said native tribes in the area are at risk of “extermination” 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,” López 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 Rodríguez-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 Bogotá.
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 López, 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.
“I’ve been begging Bogotá for planes to evacuate our people to other cities with working [ICU] facilities and ventilators,” says Lopez. “But they haven’t sent any help yet.”
A few hours upriver from Leticia, at the village of Puerto Nariño, the local clinic has identified 46 cases. Because the clinic has only one bed, the sickest patients are sent to the district capital via an ambulance boat that can carry just two victims at a time.
“My fear is that if it keeps on like this we’re going to be completely overwhelmed and run out of supplies,” says Dr. Diane Rodriguez, one of a handful of physicians and nurses on staff at Puerto Nariño’s small health outpost.
“Amazonas is a paradise, and the foreign visitors love to come here,” Rodriguez says. Yet despite tourist dollars from river cruises, jungle treks, and visits to “tribal villages” flowing in for decades, state coffers are empty and vital resources are scarce and the health system dismal. “Because of that,” says Rodriguez, “indigenous peoples who should be treated like national treasures are now at great risk.”
Unfortunately, the indifference of officialdom is nothing new. In fact, many of the underlying health factors that make indigenous peoples particularly susceptible to the coronavirus are the result of years of governmental neglect.
“Indigenous people suffer both from lack of access to health care—with its attendant effects on longer-term illnesses, chronic issues, and co-morbidities—that make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus,” says Bret Gustafson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington at St. Louis who specializes in Latin American indigenous movements.
“[They] lack access to treatment when impacted by COVID, and lack of means to effectively self-isolate or quarantine when impacted,” Gustafson says. All of this “intensifies the impacts” of the pandemic.
According to Dr. Rodriguez, some of those specific conditions include diabetes, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and even HIV.
“Many households don’t even have access to potable water,” she says. “Instead of being able to self-isolate, families are often forced to sleep in the same room together, even when someone is already infected.”
In the absence of modern health care, many indigenous victims have turned to traditional cures to combat COVID-19.
“The elders have cures for coughs and colds, and they use these as best they can,” says OPIAC president López. “They make brews of the ginger root and other herbs, and fumigate the houses of those infected to reduce [aerial] transmission.”
For Gustafson, such well-intentioned but understandably limited self-healing efforts only underscore the state’s failings to provide even basic care for at-risk populations.
“Given the absence of access to biomedical treatments, facilities, or infrastructures, it is absolutely understandable that peoples might turn to the only thing they have in the form of traditional remedies.
“But the lack of access to [modern] resources is precisely the problem.”
Another problem is hunger. Because many indigenous communities rely on either day labor or subsistence farming to put food on the table, the pandemic often means going without much-needed calories.
“Government support since the quarantine has been very minimal,” says Lilia Tapayuri, an indigenous council member in Puerto Nariño.
“The risk of contagion is very high, because most people have to go out to work. They don’t have the money to buy enough food to store it for several months.”
Colombian authorities have imposed strict lockdown measures since March. But without sufficient relief efforts to accompany the quarantine, such regulations have forced many rural citizens to choose between obedient starvation or risky foraging.
“We can’t even go out to work our farms without breaking the law and getting fined,” Tapayuri says. “Now the rains will come and flood the fields, and we won’t have harvested anything to feed ourselves.”
All of this is taking a tremendous toll on native populations, putting vital traditions, cultures, and languages at risk, in addition to countless lives. Certain ancient dialects can be limited to very small geographic areas, making their survival all the more precarious.
“Entire pueblos are at risk of disappearing,” says López . “Songs and oral stories could vanish forever, ceremonies and unique languages might be lost.”
Anthropologist Gustafson shares those concerns:
“To the extent that COVID seems to be affecting the elderly, this potentially represents a rapid depletion of those who generally maintain traditional languages and knowledge.”
For entire histories wrought in idioms that remain largely unwritten, such a forfeiture would seem almost apocalyptic.
“The knowledge of the elders means everything to us,” López says. “To lose them is to lose ourselves.”