Kolkata, India: Indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon are dying at twice the officially recorded rate from COVID-19, according to an independent study that also found a higher rate of infections than that reported by the government.
According to the findings of an independent assessment conducted by the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations in the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), there were 103 percent more fatalities than the Ministry of Health’s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health reported (Sesai).
The report comes after Brazil’s far-right President Jaire Bolsonaro faces a Senate probe into his efforts to handle the nation’s COVID-19 outbreak, one of the world’s worst, and widely criticized to be manhandled.
The findings also reveal a 14 percent increase in illnesses from February 23 to October 3, 2020.
The research was published in April in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry in collaboration with other institutions such as the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), Mongabay reported.
This underreporting, according to research co-author Valéria Paye of COIAB, is done on purpose.
“As a result of structural bias, it’s an attempt to reject Indigenous identity itself. And this is then used to deny them their right to immunizations and health care,” she says.
She claims that the discrepancy between official data and the results of the poll — 330 deaths versus 670, and 22,127 confirmed illnesses vs 25,356 — is due to the Ministry of Health’s failure to report cases of Indigenous people living outside of recognized Indigenous regions.
Brazil has been previously accused of ignoring the health and safety of the Amazonian tribes — some of the world’s most secluded and oldest — on various grounds like deforestation of the rainforests, poaching, and more recently pandemic.
In May last year, a group of high-profile global figures including Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, and Madonna has urged Brazil president Jaire Bolsonaro to take immediate actions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 into the indigenous Amazon tribes.
If steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection into these indigenous groups are not checked, their very existence would be under threat, the open letter argued.
According to the most recently available census statistics, the Indigenous people who live in cities accounted for around 36% of the country’s total Indigenous population in 2010, as per reports.
As a result of this strategy, Indigenous people living in metropolitan areas are excluded from priority immunization lists.
The COVID-19 incidence rate in Brazil’s Amazonian states (known as the Legal Amazon) is 136 percent higher than the national average for Indigenous people and 70% higher than the region’s general population, according to the study.
Indigenous death rates per 100,000 are 110 percent higher than the Brazilian average and 89 percent higher than the regional average.
Underreporting, according to Fiocruz researcher and study co-author Paulo César Basta, is particularly detrimental.
He claims that if the government only acknowledges half of the problem, it will only allocate half of the funding and resources required to tackle it.
“Then you’ll allocate less qualified professionals to deal with the issue, you’ll invest less, allocate fewer tests, and you’ll have a distorted view of reality, seeing the problem as smaller than it actually is,” Basta says.
According to the report, this is a textbook example of the government’s willful incapacity to gather, screen, and disseminate credible and detailed data to inform public policy.
This insufficiency is attributed to the federal government’s blatant persecution of Indigenous peoples, as well as the federal government’s financing for them, which has been decreased as a result of Brazil’s Spending Cap Act.
Despite the pandemic, Indigenous health spending is at its lowest level in eight years. According to a poll performed by the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, partial data on expenditures in 2020 reveal a 14 percent reduction from 2018, right before Jair Bolsonaro assumed office as president (INESC).
The current budget of the federal Indigenous affairs agency, or Funai, is the lowest in the last ten years, accounting for only 0.02 percent of the federal government’s budget.
Because the government failed to adequately respond to the pandemic’s impact on Indigenous people, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) took the issue to court, Mongabay reports.
The Bolsonaro administration was ordered by the Supreme Federal Court to take immediate measures to battle the pandemic among Indigenous peoples in August 2020.
The judgment, which the government has yet to fully implement, calls for steps such as the construction of sanitary barriers, the provision of health care inside the Sesai network, and the expansion of health services to Indigenous peoples living in cities and lands undergoing demarcation.
“After more than a year into the pandemic, it seems that the federal government has learned nothing from the situation and is implementing a plan specially orchestrated to harm Indigenous people,” Fiocruz’s Basta says.
Incomplete data and indigenous people infected by health professionals themselves
COIAB’s data on COVID-19 cases in the Amazon comes directly from the afflicted communities, although the Ministry of Health’s data does not.
As of May 4, the organization has registered over 38,000 COVID-19 illnesses and 918 deaths in the Amazon among 151 Indigenous villages of various ethnic groupings.
COIAB considers information from Indigenous leaders, on-the-ground health workers, and organizations that operate within the COIAB network in addition to data from Sesai.
According to APIB, 1,038 Indigenous individuals have died in Brazil as a whole, with more than 52,000 cases registered among 163 Indigenous communities. The material is updated on a regular basis by a national committee.
These figures are higher than the 46,500 confirmed cases and 639 deaths from COVID-19 among Indigenous peoples released by the Ministry of Health on April 16.
Martha Fellows, a researcher at IPAM and one of the study’s primary authors, highlights the disparities between the Ministry of Health’s simplified data and COIAB’s survey.
“If you want to think about health-care policy, you need to know everything there is to know. It’s critical to get the most accurate data possible for this. “It would be critical,” she says.
Another exacerbating aspect is that COVID-19 was introduced into Indigenous villages by health care personnel who did not take the proper precautions, such as getting tested and quarantining for at least 14 days before entering the Amazon’s isolated sections.
According to COIAB’s Paye, “in many cases, Sesai’s own workers were the disease’s entrance door.” “That’s what happened in Tucumaque [between the states of Pará and Amapá].” We’ve seen a lot of examples like that.”
This occurred, for example, among Indigenous peoples living in the Vale do Javari Indigenous Territory in Amazonas state’s far west, an area with the highest number of isolated groups, some of whom had only just had contact with the outside world.
Access to health care is another important concern affecting Indigenous inhabitants in the Amazon: the average distance between Indigenous territories in the Amazon and the nearest towns with ICU beds is 271 kilometers (168 miles); for some settlements in the Upper Negro River area, in the state of Amazonas, it is over 700 kilometers (435 mi).
The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment on the study, the issues, or the cases reported.
With inputs from Mongabay.
COVER IMAGE: RONORÉ GAVIÃO, 105 YEARS OLD, WHO LIVES IN THE MÃE MARIA INDIGENOUS TERRITORY, WAS THE FIRST INDIGENOUS PERSON TO BE VACCINATED IN THE STATE OF PARÁ. IMAGE BY BRUNO CECIM/AGÊNCIA PARÁ VIA MONGABAY.