Indigenous groups across South America are going into lock down as coronavirus takes hold.
The tribes are closing off their reserves to visitors, blockading their villages and retreating into their traditional forest and mountain homes in an attempt to escape the deadly threat of coronavirus.
As they have little or no immunity to common outside diseases, “an epidemic can wipe out an entire tribe,” Jonathan Mazower, communications director for an indigenous rights group has warned.
Brazils Health Ministry announced on Friday that a doctor, who had been working with the largest tribe in the Amazon, had tested positive for the virus.
The Guardian reports: In recent days, as the number of cases in South America has risen to almost 8,000 – with many more cases likely to be unreported – indigenous groups in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have all started taking steps to protect themselves from what they call a historic danger.
“Coronavirus could wipe us out,” warned Ianucula Kaiabi, an indigenous leader in Brazil’s Xingu national park, a sprawling sanctuary on the southern fringes of the Amazon that is home to about 6,000 people from 16 different tribes.
With Brazil’s death toll hitting 136 on Sunday, Xingu leaders have been sealing off roads into their reserve, which is almost the size of Belgium, and urging local residents to leave only in emergencies.
Further north, on Brazil’s Amazon border with Colombia and Venezuela, the country’s most indigenous municipality, São Gabriel da Cachoeira, has reportedly been placed in total lockdown, with all flights and boat traffic suspended.
“It’s an extremely sensitive region,” Marivelton Baré, the president of the River Negro Indigenous Federation, said of the isolated district, which lies three days from Manaus by boat. “The health system is precarious and we have isolated tribes here.”
Sofia Mendonça, a public health physician who works in the Xingu, said acute, highly infectious diseases such as measles, smallpox and flu viruses had a long track record of “decimating” indigenous communities and were a particular threat to Brazil’s more than 100 isolated groups.
“Right now the big issue is stopping this virus from reaching the villages. If this virus gets into the villages it will cause a huge amount of death,” Mendonça, said remembering how Brazil’s Panará people were nearly wiped out in the early 1970s after the dictatorship bulldozed a road through their lands.
“We are talking about true genocide,” Mendonça warned.
Across the region there are similar fears.
“If coronavirus reached native populations the impact would be terrible,” said Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, the head of a regional network called the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin, which has advised communities to go into lockdown and evacuate outsiders.
“Due to our community-based way of life, the transmission would be very fast and the mortality would be extremely high,” added Díaz Mirabal, a member of the indigenous Kurripako people of Venezuela.
Segundo Chukipiondo, a spokesperson for Peru’s Amazon indigenous federation, said it had urged the 2,000-plus communities it represents to close their borders.
The first South American community to self-isolate appears to have been Tawasap, a 70-strong settlement in Ecuador’s southern Santiago Morona region.
In late February, weeks before Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, ordered a nationwide lockdown, a Shuar indigenous leader called Tzamarenda Estalin placed a sign at his village’s entrance that read: “Entry forbidden as a health precaution.”
“We decided to shut our doors and not let anybody in or out … in order to care for our people,” said Tzamarenda, 49.
The Shuar’s 349 other villages, home to about 3,800 people, quickly followed suit. “Pandemics have hit us before – like influenza, measles and chickenpox – and they killed millions of people in Latin America,” he said, echoing the fears of indigenous communities across the region.
Recent studies show diseases such as smallpox and measles brought by European invaders may have wiped out up to 90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas – perhaps 55 million of an estimated 60 million people – between the late 15th and 17th centuries.
Tzamarenda, who traces his lineage to Kirup, a warrior leader who expelled both Incas and Spanish conquistadors from Shuar territory in the 16th century, said that risk meant Tawasap would stay closed until at least May.
“Knowing we can’t cure ourselves because there is no cure, we have shut ourselves in,” he told the Guardian by telephone. “We don’t have masks or alcohol but we can use our medicinal plants to protect us.”