Coronavirus threatens remote Indigenous communities in the Amazon

Pan American Health Organization warns the virus is spreading rapidly in Amazon areas between Brazil, Colombia, Peru.

    An Indigenous woman wearing a face mask that reads, "Indigenous lives matter", during the funeral of Chief Messias Kokama, 53, from the Parque das Tribos (Tribes Park), who died after contracting the coronavirus at Parque das Tribos in Manaus, Brazil [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]
    An Indigenous woman wearing a face mask that reads, "Indigenous lives matter", during the funeral of Chief Messias Kokama, 53, from the Parque das Tribos (Tribes Park), who died after contracting the coronavirus at Parque das Tribos in Manaus, Brazil [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]

    The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned on Tuesday that the new coronavirus is spreading rapidly in the tri-border area of the Amazon between Brazil, Colombia and Peru and threatens to infect remote Indigenous communities in the rainforest.

    PAHO directors urged in a virtual briefing that special measures be taken to protect vulnerable groups among the poor and Indigenous populations of the Americas. They said contagion was rising fast in densely populated Amazon border cities such as Manaus, Leticia and Iquitos, and the greatest danger is the COVID-19 spreading now to isolated villages.

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    On Monday, health experts in Brazil said the disease is spreading so quickly among the Indigenous people in the furthest parts of Brazil's Amazon rainforest that doctors are now evacuating critical COVID-19 patients by plane to the only intensive care units in the vast region.

    "The number of COVID-19 patients has increased a lot. We are flying more planes [up the rivers]; it's the last opportunity to save their lives," said Edson Santos Rodrigues, a paediatric doctor working on medevac planes for the state of Amazonas.

    "Sometimes, we don't get there in time, because we cannot land at night on remote airfields that have no lights," he said as he returned to the city of Manaus with a 26-year-old man of the Tikuna tribe, who was breathing through an oxygen tank on board the plane. Manaus, the capital city of Amazonas, has some of the only intensive care units in the region.

    The Brazilian government's Indigenous health service Sesai reported on Monday at least 23 Indigenous people have died from COVID-19, the deadly illness caused by the coronavirus. The victims were in remote tribal territories, 11 of them in the upper reaches of the Amazon river bordering Colombia and Peru.

    Brazil indigenous
    A coronavirus patient who is also pregnant is carried into an ambulance by a healthcare worker after arriving from Coari to Manaus in an ICU jet, Brazil [Bruno Kelly/Reuters] 

    Brazil's main tribal umbrella organisation APIB counts the coronavirus cases of Indigenous people who have migrated to urban areas and who are not treated by Sesai. The group reported on Monday a rise in the death toll with 103 confirmed deaths, up from 18 on April 3.

    Three-quarters of the 540 confirmed cases of coronavirus among 40 tribes reported by APIB are in the Amazon where the pandemic has hit Manaus so badly that it was the first Brazilian city to run out of ICU beds, while its main cemetery buries the dead in collective graves.

    On Monday, a seriously ill 78-year-old patient on a ventilator died on the flight from Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira, the mostly Indigenous town in the Amazon located on the Rio Negro near the border with Venezuela, said Daniel Siqueira, a medevac doctor.

    The epidemic may have begun in the city, but it is worsening in the remote regions, he said. "Towns must isolate and stop the virus from reaching the Indigenous villages or many more will die," he said.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency