Between a virus and a hot place: Amazon tribes move across borders and face extinction

  • Indigenous tribes that live in the Amazon rainforest move from one country to another with little thought of formal borders.
  • Their unchecked movements are not only jeopardizing their very existence but also spreading the virus.
  • While countries have come together on how to deal with massive forest fires, they have not considered this lesson to deal with the novel coronavirus.

Covid-19 is spreading faster than wildfires and virtually unchecked through the isolated tribes that live in the Amazon. And the indigenous people who live in the largest rainforest in the world may be very well render many of the efforts of half a dozen countries to fight off the coronavirus mute.

“The approval of an emergency plan for tribes is urgent. The fatality rate among these tribes is high. Among the indigenous (people), there are 540 confirmed cases, with 103 deaths,” said the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil (APIB), a non-for-profit that supports the indigenous peoples from Brazil. 

The indigenous people that live in the Amazon don’t pay much attention to international borders defined by settlers centuries ago, borders that define which part of the Amazon rainforest is in which of the nine countries that control a piece of it. 

These indigenous people typically move from one country to the other with ease and they may take the novel coronavirus with them wherever they go, regardless of whether airports and land borders are open or closed. In the region of the Amazon shared by Brazil, Colombia and Peru, the situation is worsening by the hour.

As of 19 May, there were more than 22,100 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the Amazon state of Brazil, a country that now ranks as the fourth in the world with most cases. There are still more than 500 patients in hospital, 200 of which are in intensive care. 

While the Peruvian department of the Amazonas has counted only 325 cases, the situation Colombia’s own department of Amazonas is worsening and Covid-19 is taking a huge toll on its population. With few ICU beds at the capital city of Leticia and a porous border comprised of jungle and rivers, Covid-19 is spreading quickly throughout the Colombian Amazon. In fact, it is the region with the most cases per capita in all of Colombia.

The healthcare system in this area is almost nonexistent. The main hospital has ran out of oxygen services due to technical issue with its medical devices. The main city of Leticia started the evacuation of Covid-19 patients by air to Bogota. The first seven patients arrived last weekend. Bogota is the largest focus of Covid-19 in the country and some of its ICUs are already overflowing.

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque has deployed the military into the jungle border with Brazil to try and contain the spread of the virus through rainforest.

A lack of coordination between authorities of Colombia and Brazil (the latter of which has all but ignored the virus) has not been easy. 

“There is an urgent need to strengthen border controls, where once again we find ourselves in a situation that can become critical, given the differences we have in the approach from the point of view of epidemiological control with our neighbors, as is the case of Brazil,” president Iván Duque said.

No help from Brazil

Beyond their vastly different approaches to the pandemic, Colombia is finding little help from Brazil and this lack of response or even acknowledgement of the problem from Brasilia is making it that much more difficult to protect the Amazon tribes along the vast swaths of forest along the border but also preventing maembers of the various tribes from acting as virus spreaders. 

Brazil has had three ministries of health just during the past three months when the pandemic has spread. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was appointed by president Jair Bolsonaro at the beginning of his government in 2019 resigned over his approach to handling the Covid-19 emergency. Mandetta was replaced by Nelson Teich on 17 April, but Teich lasted less than a month in office and resigned on May 15 for the same reason. Both declined to sign a protocol to provide Covid-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine at the start of treatment, as President Jair Bolsonaro asked them to do. 

Hydroxychloroquine is a drug approved to treat malaria that has not been proven effective against Covid-19 and side effects of the drug, include cardiac pathologies. 

Bolsonaro appointed General Eduardo Pazuello as interim Minister of Health.

Lessons from the fires

Interestingly, there are some lessons to contain the spread that Colombia and Brazil could pick up from the efforts to fight the forest fires last year. 

The fires from mid-2019 triggered a coordinated response among the nine countries with pieces of the Amazon and led to a joint agreement. However, that agreement could not have envisioned the danger the coronavirus would pose to indigenous communities.

And while governments have strengthened border patrols and controls, the indigenous people move freely across borders that are not always well defined in the deep jungle. The border between Colombia and Brazil alone is 1,600 kilometers long. 

Transportation throughout the Amazon happens by boat over the Amazon river, but in some places, it happens in more subtle ways. Leticia, the capital of Colombia’s department of Amazonas, borders the city of Tabatinga, Brazil. The two cities merge together like a single urban unit divided only by an almost unchecked bump.

A four days trip over the Amazon river connects Tabatinga with Manaus, the capital city of the state of the Amazon in Brazil. Manaus has more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19, according to official data from Brasilia, but a study conducted by the Federal University of Pelotas says that the real figure be more than 200,000 cases. With about 1,000 deaths, cemeteries in Manaus ran out of capacity and the bodies of coronavirus patients that died of the diseases, mounted in the streets.

The virus is spreading silently, but rapidly through the jungle. Brazil and Peru, the two most affected countries in South America will play a key role on containment. Meanwhile, in Colombia, the government continues to struggle to keep people at home under shelter-in-place orders while it hopes beyond hope that indigenous people in Brazil and Peru will stay on their sides of the borders.