COVID-19 May Completely Wipe Out Some Amazon Tribes

'We could be faced with the disappearance of whole cultures,' an advocate for indigenous peoples said.

Adalton Akay, one of the Munduruku indigenous tribe leaders, stands on the banks of the Tapajos River.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

'We could be faced with the disappearance of whole cultures,' an advocate for indigenous peoples said.

COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, could wipe out entire tribes in the Amazon region, The Daily Beast reported. The tribespeoples’ immune systems — as well as area governments’ responses to the pandemic — have left the indigenous populations especially vulnerable.

For millennia, tribes have occupied the Amazon basin, steadfastly avoiding contact with outsiders. That lack of exposure to the pathogens of the greater world has left their immune systems unable to cope with many illnesses, including COVID-19. Although the disease is survivable by most of the population, it is lethal in people with compromised immune systems, such as those of isolated regions in the Amazon. If the illness reaches a village, it could be a death sentence for entire communities.

Julio López, president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon [OPIAC], said that some tribes in the region are at risk of being exterminated by the disease.

“We could be faced with the disappearance of whole cultures. Our elders are dying. Our very way of life is at risk,” he said.

He also noted the devastating effects of the pandemic could linger even for those who survive the disease itself.

“The fields go untended and we can’t work them. So what will we eat when the rainy season comes?” he asked.

MANAUS, BRAZIL - MAY 24: Raimundo dos Santos cries and holds the body of his wife, Lucia Rodrigues dos Santos, 60 years old whose death is not determined yet, while members of the SOS Funeral team wait to rescue her at Zumbi dos Palmares neighborhood on May 24, 2020 in Manaus, Brazil. SOS Funeral is a public service provided by Manaus City Hall to help low-income families to hold burials. The demand for the service has increased dramatically due to coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Manaus. Brazil has now become the second country in the world with the highest number of coronavirus disease cases (COVID-19), with more than 347,390 infected people. (Photo by Andre Coelho/Getty Images)
  Andre Coelho / Getty Images

Due to the remote and sometimes inaccessible places where these tribes live, it’s difficult to get help to sickened individuals and hospitals are almost nonexistent.

López said that he’s been asking the Colombian government for help, although they haven’t responded to his requests.

“I’ve been begging Bogotá for planes to evacuate our people to other cities with working [ICU] facilities and ventilators. But they haven’t sent any help yet,” he said.

In both Colombia and Brazil, the governments have chosen to effectively ignore the pandemic. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Colombia’s Iván Duque have both steadfastly refused efforts to contain the virus or provide financial relief to communities affected by it.

The situation is so bad in Brazil that Colombia has militarized its border with the largest South American nation in an effort to keep infected Brazilians from entering their country. However, enforcement is next to impossible, due to the thick jungle and the multitude of possible passages between the two countries.

In the meantime, the tribespeople are doing what they can to treat the illness, largely through centuries-old herbal remedies of limited efficacy.

“Given the absence of access to biomedical treatments, facilities, or infrastructures, it is absolutely understandable that peoples might turn to the only thing they have in the form of traditional remedies,” anthropology professor Bret Gustafson said.