An 83-year-old Marubo, known as Yovêmpa, died of COVID-19 on July 5, the country’s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health said five days later. Two other deaths were subsequently reported by the Independent Coordination of Indigenous Peoples.
Yovêmpa was not part of an isolated group, but lived in a village close to some of these groups. An organization representing the Marubo people on the Itui River said in a statement that the former indigenous leader had not left home for months.
“If the virus is not immediately stopped, it could quickly arrive and devastate other Marubo communities along the Itui River and exterminate both recently contacted Korubo groups and isolated groups,” said the Marubo group in a statement.
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The health secretariat, known as SESAI, said it had recorded 220 coronvirus infections in the Javari Valley, an area of 85,445 square kilometers which is almost as large as Hungary.
The Brazilian government says that the valley is home to many indigenous groups, including 10 isolated people who often refuse contact with non-indigenous people because of a historic illness and violence against them. SESAI says the total population – not counting isolated people – was around 6,200 at the last census in 2014, of which around a third was Marubo.
Indigenous leaders began to try to find their own means of providing treatment given the local scarcity of hospital infrastructure. They turned to a nonprofit organization, Health Expeditionaries, to build small field clinics to treat mild cases so people don’t have to travel to bigger cities like Atalaia do Norte, where the healthcare system collapsed in June with around 400 suspected COVID -19 cases in a population of 13,000.
Amazonas state, where the Javari Valley is located, was hit hard by COVID-19 in April, leading to mass burials and chaos in hospitals in the capital Manaus. Since June, the situation has improved. But in the Javari Valley, 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from Manaus, the pandemic is still in its infancy.
The first cases of coronavirus in the Javari region occurred five weeks ago. Indigenous leaders of various ethnicities near the Itui River have called on the federal government to take urgent action to stop the spread.
But the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley complained that the government had not set up checkpoints as promised to limit access to their lands.
The leaders of the Matses people, who straddle the Brazilian border with Peru, made a similar request in a June 29 letter to authorities, and said their need for protection had not been met.
On Tuesday, the government’s National Indigenous Foundation released a statement denying accusations of failure in its response during the pandemic. He said his critics had supported “the old socialist indigenous policies of social protection and favoritism, which have caused so much disgrace for indigenous groups in Brazil.”
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Health Expeditionaries, aided by doctors and nurses from SESAI, plans to send 50 small infirmaries to the field with oxygen equipment, radio communications and power generators throughout the Amazon within the next month. The Brazilian Defense Ministry said on Friday that one of its helicopters would be on a mission with SESAI staff members to deliver supplies to seven other medical centers in the Javari Valley.
Ricardo Affonso Pereira, president of the non-profit organization, said small infirmaries can help up to 10 people who have difficulty breathing. The natives have so far dealt with a two to four day stay at the facility, he told The Associated Press.
“With this virus, every minute counts, so we will travel in every way possible to provide the remaining care units,” said Pereira, adding that he expects the entire operation with the helicopter to take over. at least 20 hours.
Local leader Beto Marubo said that up to 900 indigenous peoples from several groups are at increasing risk of contagion on the banks of the Itaquai River, which extends to the city of Atalaia do Norte.
“COVID-19 may have already reached the Itaquai River, where the Kanamari groups live,” he said. “It’s close to where most of the isolated groups in the Javari Valley live,” he said.