The COVID-19 pandemic is the direct cause of death for hundreds of indigenous people in Latin America. Highlighting that governments have failed to control the spread of the virus due to both negligence and lack of preparation. But the former leaders who contributed to the economic model based on land concentration also fostered the catastrophic expansion of the coronavirus among indigenous communities.
Comparisons between the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous communities and the colonial ‘biological war’ are commonplace. But this may not be the most accurate comparison.
Indeed, biological warfare was one of the factors that allowed violent colonial domination over indigenous peoples. At the time, unknown diseases decimated and weakened communities, allowing the colonizers to impose a regime of violence, marginalization and exploitation. Biological warfare has contributed to the state of precariousness that has persisted over indigenous peoples for centuries.
Today, centuries after the Iberian invasion of the Latin American continent, indigenous peoples have already had forced contact with diseases common to non-indigenous people. But as a result of the social structures inherited from the colonial exploitation period, they live in conditions of near total lack of access to basic health services. In Latin America, up to 30% of those who live in extreme poverty and health vulnerability are indigenous.
Because of the process of land concentration that started in the colonial period, indigenous communities were squeezed out and expelled from their ancestral lands. Ever since, they have been neglected by States aligned with the land-grabbing project. The centuries-long struggles and violence left them vulnerable to sanitary crises, such as that of COVID-19.
While Brazil exceeds 80,000 COVID-19 deaths, official data shows that 50 of these deaths were of indigenous people. However, since the virus is likely to spread among the communities, the expected impact is likely to be more severe. The Xavante ethnic group, for instance, has reported 21 deaths as a result of the virus and 168 infections.
As these numbers become part of the official data, the immeasurable impact of the loss of indigenous elders will be untold. In Brazil, in recent weeks, the Mundukuru people suffered 12 fatal coronavirus victims, 11 of whom were elderly. Elders are key figures in communities, as they carry the ancestral knowledge and play a leadership role in the struggle over land. In countries where indigenous peoples have organized to fight for the right to their ancestral lands, elders are essential for engagement and mobilization.