Brazil Confirms First COVID-19 Case Among Indigenous People

Aerial View of River in the Amazon rainforest. Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock

An indigenous person living in a village deep in the Amazon rainforest has tested positive for COVID-19, marking it the first confirmed case of the disease in Brazil's indigenous population. 

SESAI, the Brazilian Health Ministry’s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health, said on April 2 a 20-year-old woman from the Kokama tribe has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the district of Santo Antonio do Içá in northern Amazonas state, Reuters reports. 

"This is the only case of an indigenous woman with COVID-19 in Brazil," SESAI said, according to AFP news agency. 

"So far, the professional is without any symptoms of the infection. Her family members are also assisted and in isolation.”

Amazônia Real reports the woman was one of 27 indigenous people who were being monitored after having close contact with a medical doctor who specializes in indigenous peoples' health and was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week. Health authorities are also closely monitoring 10 Tikuna indigenous people in southern Brazil who were also treated by the same doctor on March 19. 

Many have feared this scenario for some time. Last week, health authorities were concerned numerous indigenous people from the Marubo may have contracted COVID-19 after coming into contact with a group of American tourists. Fortunately, they all tested negative for COVID-19, although there's now a worry other tribes have been exposed to the virus.

It's thought that some indigenous peoples will be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as isolated groups have little or no acquired immunity to diseases and common infections circulating in the general population. As history has shown time and again, the introduction of a foreign pathogen to remote indigenous communities can be devastating.

Equally, many of Brazil's indigenous communities live in extremely remote corners of the country, meaning it’s often near-impossible to deliver medical supplies and assistance. 

"There is an incredible risk of the virus spreading through communities and causing genocide," Sofia Mendonça, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), told BBC News Brasil.

Some indigenous groups are not going down without a fight, though. Leaders of the Xingu people in northern Brazil have announced plans to seal off roads into their reserve, only allowing health professionals who have been fully screened into their territory.

The current Brazilian indigenous population is just over 817,000 people, according to 2010 statistics by FUNAI, the Brazilian government's indigenous agency. While the majority live in rural regions, a considerable number now live in urbanized areas and are in contact with non-indigenous society. Even today, around 100 uncontacted tribes are still in existence, the majority of which can be found in Brazil. 

"If their lands are properly protected from outsiders, uncontacted tribes should be relatively safe from the coronavirus pandemic. But many of their territories are being invaded and stolen for logging, mining, and agribusiness, with the encouragement of President Bolsonaro, who has virtually declared war on Brazil's indigenous peoples," Sarah Shenker, Survival's Uncontacted Tribes campaigner, said in a statement.

"Where invaders are present, coronavirus could wipe out whole peoples. It's a matter of life and death."

 

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