Brazil's indigenous people call for WHO emergency fund to fight coronavirus

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Indigenous leaders in Brazil asked the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday to set up an emergency fund to help protect their communities from the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: An indigenous person from Pataxo ethnic group is seen inside the village Nao Xoha, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Sao Joaquim de Bicas, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Washington Alves

Many of Brazil’s 850,000 indigenous people live in remote Amazon areas with little access to healthcare, and indigenous groups say the government of President Jair Bolsonaro has not included the communities in national plans to fight the virus.

In a letter to WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus they asked for help to provide personal protective equipment that is unavailable to health workers in tribal reservations and villages.

“It is a real emergency,” Joenia Wapichana, the leader of the appeal to the WHO and the first indigenous woman elected to Brazil’s Congress, told Reuters.

“Indigenous people are vulnerable and have no protection.”

The number of indigenous people in Brazil killed by the virus has risen to 18, said indigenous umbrella organisation APIB, though the government has only officially reported six.

That is because the indigenous health service Sesai only reports deaths in tribal villages and not those of tribe members who have moved to urban areas.

By Sunday, 107 indigenous people in the Amazon were confirmed to be infected, with the majority, or 59, in the upper reaches of the Amazon river near the border with Colombia and Peru, APIB said.

The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab) has complained about Sesai’s lack of testing and absence of care for people living outside their traditional villages in cities such as Manaus, where virus cases have overwhelmed the hospital system.

Bolsonaro’s new health minister, Nelson Teich, has said protecting indigenous people is a priority. The government’s indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, has stopped Christian missionaries from evangelizing isolated tribes during the epidemic to avoid contagion.

The appeal by indigenous groups came a day after an open letter to Bolsonaro from dozens of international artists, musicians and actors urging him to protect Brazil’s indigenous people.

Signers included artists Ai Weiwei and David Hockney, musicians Sting and Paul McCartney, actors Glenn Close and Sylvester Stallone, and film and TV host Oprah Winfrey.

The “extreme threat” faced by indigenous people in Brazil was amplified by invasions of protected tribal lands by illegal miners, loggers and cattle ranchers, the letter warned.

“These illicit activities have accelerated in recent weeks, because the Brazilian authorities charged with protecting these lands have been immobilized by the pandemic,” it added.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open in an external browser.)

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Clarence Fernandez