PARIS (AP) – When white doctors entered Camopi, a predominantly indigenous town in French Guiana near the border with Brazil, townspeople felt concern instead of relief.
Guyana being faced with a wave of coronavirus infections, doctors from the French mainland were there to test and treat the sick. But for residents of the former colony, few of whom have the internet or television or knew about COVID-19, the appearance of health workers echoed the arrival of Europeans in South America and the disease and illness. exploitation they have caused.
“There is still in mind the time of colonization and the devastation caused by the viruses brought by the colonizers,” Jean-Philippe Chambrier, member of the Arawak tribe and representative of the indigenous communities of Guyana. “So when they saw white people from the mainland, they made the connection.”
The most worrying point of the virus in France is found on the north coast of South America: French Guiana, a territory of around 300,000 inhabitants where poverty is endemic and health care scarce. Its epidemic has exposed deep economic and racial inequalities that residents say Parisian leaders have long chosen to ignore.
A few months after the virus stabilized in mainland France, it developed in French Guiana. For weeks in June and early July, about a quarter of the daily new infections reported across France were in French Guiana, which represents just 0.5% of the French population. More than 6,500 cases have been recorded in the territory, although the authorities fear that the number of infections is estimated to be much higher.
Its hospitals reached their maximum capacity in June, and the French army intervened to transport patients to the French Caribbean island, Martinique. The national government has sent 130 reserve health workers to French Guiana, and more are on the way.
Local officials say a porous border with Brazil and the rapid spread of the virus there were only part of the problem. They denounce the lack of concern of metropolitan France for a region where more than half of the population lives below the national poverty line – about 10% do not even have running water – and where it took more one month to translate the government’s original COVID-19 Guide into all local languages.
Guyana was colonized in the 1600s and became a French “department” in 1946, making it an integral part of France, which uses the euro and responds to the political leaders of Paris, 7,000 kilometers away (4,300 miles). It is a multi-ethnic society with several indigenous communities, descendants of black slaves, descendants of settlers and immigrants. And although it represents one seventh of French territory, it is rarely mentioned in French politics and current affairs.
The virus changed that, at least temporarily. For weeks, it has been the first priority of the national health agency. New Prime Minister Jean Castex made a rare trip to the capital of French Guiana, Cayenne, this week to offer moral support – but nothing else.
In the slums surrounding Cayenne, aid groups have stepped up their food distribution efforts during a deadlock that has devastated the livelihoods of those working in the informal economy. Many of them did not have access to temporary unemployment benefits.
Things are just as bad in villages like Camopi, which has only one doctor for every 2,000 people. Camopi detected 61 cases in May and June, and although no one has died, the challenges illustrate some of France’s most pressing inequalities.
Its inhabitants speak Wayampi, Teko, Portuguese, Creole and French. When doctors come from France, they need mediators and translators.
Silvain Louis has been a volunteer mediator at Camopi for four years. He says residents have long been ignorant of the virus and how to protect themselves. “They knew they were locked up, that there was an illness,” said Louis, who is of mixed Creole, Chinese, and Aboriginal descent. “But there was no prevention to explain things. “
The first case Louis discovered was a grandmother living in his neighborhood. “She had been lying in her hammock for two days” with a headache, a sore throat and a fever, he said. Like the other first cases at Camopi, she did not immediately think it was COVID-19.
“She thought it was fatigue or maybe the flu,” Louis said. She tested positive and was taken to Cayenne by helicopter for hospitalization if her condition worsened.
Because Internet access, electricity, and TV reception are limited at the center of Camopi, few people know about the virus, said Louis, and health workers have to go “door to door.” “
When the first additional doctors arrived, people did not feel safe. “From day to day, you see teams of doctors everywhere. It’s scary, ”said Louis.
In 2016, there were 55 general practitioners per 100,000 inhabitants in French Guiana, most of them concentrated in Cayenne. This compares to 104 per 100,000 in mainland France.
The last time French Guiana gained national attention in France was in 2017, when tens of thousands of people staged strikes and protests to demand better health services and resources to fight the disease. criminality. The state has promised a new hospital, 40 million euros to help the existing hospital in Cayenne and 120 new health professionals.
“We were fooled,” Gabriel Serville, one of French Guyana’s two lawmakers in the National Assembly, told the AP. He said the money was only sent after he filed a lawsuit, when the hospital had not yet been built and not all 120 medical professionals had arrived.
In January, before the virus became a major concern, Serville sounded the alarm on the low number of doctors and asked for help from Cuba.
“A lot of families live in makeshift homes where people don’t have access to water,” Serville said. “When people have no running water and no money because they have to feed and clothe their children and pay their rent, buying hydroalcoholic gel (hand sanitizer) is not a priority.”
Since February, Serville has been asking that the measures to fight the pandemic used on the continent be applied differently in French Guyana. Annick Girardin, the French Minister for Overseas Territories, went to French Guiana at the end of June where cases exploded, and she finally proposed measures similar to what Serville had asked for.
Serville said the government uses a management style in which decisions are dictated from above, such as “during the colonial era.” He wants this to change, so that actions are taken according to local needs instead of the Paris directives.
“The participatory mode for which we plead several times is very far from being implemented in Guyana”, said Serville.
Pierre-Olivier Zay in Cayenne, French Guiana and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.
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