Coronavirus Society

Is Covid-19 accelerating a genocide of Brazil’s indigenous people?

Indigenous chief Zé Carlos died from Covid-19, yet his death is nowhere to be found on official coronavirus records

On June 8, chief José Carlos Ferreira Arara, known as Zé Carlos, felt shortness of breath and fatigue. He was taken from his village in the Amazonian state of Pará to the São Rafael General Hospital, in Altamira. As his condition worsened, there were no vacancies at the regional hospital’s intensive care unit — but no time to transfer him to another facility. He died on June 9 of cardiac arrest, due to complications resulting from a coronavirus infection. He was 41.

Information on Zé Carlos’ death spread on Facebook and in the media. Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an environmental NGO based in Brasília, ran an eloquent blog post about his life and legacy. A strong and charismatic leader who met with filmmaker James Cameron and actor [and former California Governor] Arnold Schwarzenegger when they visited the region a decade ago, Zé Carlos lived just a few miles from where the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam was built, on the Xingu River.[restricted]

For years, he joined a coalition of activist groups who protested the construction of the dam, which completely obliterated his community’s way of life.

“The death of Zé Carlos is a great loss,” wrote ISA’s Marcelo Salazar. “Despite all the efforts of governmental and non-governmental institutions, the alerts raised by indigenous leaders themselves and sending of basic food supplies and tools to support social distancing in the communities, it was not possible to counter the arrival of the virus in the villages.” According to Mr. Salazar, over the last few weeks Zé Carlos had raised concerns about the danger of illegal gold miners and loggers traversing indigenous lands and infecting tribe members.

Despite the published reports, Sesai — the federal government agency tasked with tracking indigenous deaths from the virus in Brazil — has, at the time of writing, no record of Zé Carlos’ passing on its website. The omission is not surprising. Late last week, Brazil’s Health Ministry took down its official online Covid-19 dashboard, then put it back up, leaving out the total number of infected and dead — until the Supreme Court forced it to report the full tallies once more.

The lack of Covid-19 data among indigenous communities

Covid-19 data is even more difficult to pin down for indigenous infections and deaths than it is for the general Brazilian population. According to Sesai, there have been 2,749 confirmed infections spread across 34 indigenous districts, with 97 deaths validated by the Department of Indigenous Healthcare. But anthropologists don’t trust that data.

Vânia Fialho, a professor at both the University of Pernambuco and Federal University of Pernambuco, says it’s safer to follow data produced from the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), or from institutions that have tried to combine official Sesai findings with data collected from indigenous organizations. As of June 9, her research shows 2,886 people infected with 256 deaths.

More striking: Ms. Fialho identified 89 indigenous Covid-19 deaths in just the first eight days of June, a three-fold increase on the total deaths recorded for the month of April.

Anthropology professor Renato Athias, a colleague of Ms. Fialho’s in Pernambuco and one of the founders of inter-institutional network Remdipe, which monitors indigenous rights in his state, laments the data manipulation by President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. “This data is very important to generate epidemiological analyses,” he said. “What is currently happening in indigenous health – the information system is simply closed; no one can have access. What should be public is now private, with access only to managers.”

The lack of access and verifiable data magnifies the problem on the ground, said one public health doctor who has worked for years with Brazil’s indigenous and insisted on remaining anonymous for fear of jeopardizing efforts to save lives. The doctor said that without a true sense of the magnitude of the problem, medical personnel can’t prepare to have a comprehensive and robust response that will mitigate the spread of the virus. 

That spread within indigenous communities is already outpacing the rate of death of Brazil’s general public, according to Ms. Fialho’s findings. She calculates a mortality rate of 8.8 percent among indigenous people — against a 5.2-percent rate among the general population. 

A higher rate of death is due to an array of factors, explained the doctor who declined to be identified. Among those factors are an increased prevalence of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, chronic pulmonary diseases — such as tuberculosis — and the fact that most indigenous communities lack basic hygiene, water, and sanitation infrastructure. The doctor also noted that the average age of Covid-19 victims among indigenous people is much lower than that of the general population.

Coronavirus just one of a series of threats

According to experts, the virus is spreading to indigenous communities through a variety of means, not least from contact with non-indigenous land-grabbers. Encouraged and enabled by the federal government, agribusiness and gold miners have been invading indigenous land since Mr. Bolsonaro took office. Those invasions, experts say, have continued, unabated, during the pandemic.

How Covid-19 spreads within indigenous communities also has much to do with where those communities are located, says Maria de Lourdes Beldi de Alcantara, a medical anthropologist with the Federal University of São Paulo, who has been working with indigenous youth since 1999. While the Amazon is widely considered the epicenter of the outbreak for indigenous people, Ms. Alcantara makes a case for Dourados, in Mato Grosso do Sul state, as the second-most infected region. There, she says, some 18,000 Guarani indigenous people live in close quarters in the largest reservation in Brazil, just outside of Dourados, a city of over 200,000 residents. 

While Ms. Alcantara says she doesn’t know of any deaths on the Guarani reservation yet, she’s worried about the months ahead. “They don’t have supplies or hospitals to receive patients, or respirators,” she said. “They lack the basic conditions for survival.” Like Mr. Athias, she believes Brazil is failing them. “They have the right to support from a unified health system, the Brazilian public health system,” she said. “They have the right to choose what is best for themselves. But such a dialogue was never respected by the government of Brazil.”

Some experts say the dire situation for the roughly 900,000 indigenous people of Brazil, during the Covid-19 pandemic, has been exacerbated by a racist agenda set by Mr. Bolsonaro since his campaign trail, when he vowed not to yield “one centimeter” of land to indigenous communities — and called the National Indian Foundation an unnecessary entity. 

Moreover, they note, in less than 16 months, his administration orchestrated radical environmental changes, including: the closure of the department of deforestation prevention and control; the destruction of the Forest Code, Brazil’s land management legislation implemented in 2012 requiring landowners to retain 80 percent of their land as forests; the end of the creation of new conservation units in the Amazon, and, crucially, the weakening of the Environmental Crime Inspection system, which had sharply reduced the number of fines for illegal deforestation normally imposed by Brazil’s Institute of Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

It’s well documented that opening indigenous land to agribusiness, mining, and other private interests has resulted in multifold increases in attacks and murders of indigenous. Now, with Covid-19, some experts fear genocide, which by definition is the willful extermination of a specific group of people.

“These groups were already endangered,” said the doctor who declined to be identified. “Now they’re being exterminated. I have no fear of saying that.”

Felipe Milanez, a Professor of Humanities at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, called what’s happening to the indigenous a humanitarian crisis. “The government has the power to act but it doesn’t want to,” he said. “The world needs to pay attention. We need to join hands, all of us, to face this challenge together.”[/restricted]

By Charles Lyons

Charles Lyons is a journalist, filmmaker, and professor. He has written for The New York Times about the Belo Monte dam and about suicides among the Guarani in the southwest of Brazil. He’s also made short films for the United Nations in Brazil, Japan, and India, and produced a series on climate change for and with PBS NewsHour.