Indigenous people across the Americas are trying to defend their communities from the pandemic. But for many, isolation can quickly turn into deprivation.
Credit…Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Every morning at a school in the vast desert along the Colombian coast, 40 children, all part of the country’s largest Indigenous group, the Wayuu, gather before class for breakfast.
For many of them, the morning arepa — a traditional corn meal pastry, stuffed with meat — is their only meal of the day.
But since Colombia went into quarantine and schools shut down two weeks ago, Josefa García, a school administrator, has not received any of these meals from the country’s ministry of education. Nor have those children.
And many of the students, some of whom have watched their brothers and sisters die of malnutrition in this remote and often neglected region, are starting to worry about survival.
“Our fear is that if we don’t die of the virus,” said Ms. García, 68, “we will die of hunger.”
The global spread of the new coronavirus has put millions of Indigenous people on high alert, aware that just a few cases could spell disaster in places far from hospitals or with little access to soap and water.
But along with concern about future infections are concerns about tonight’s dinner, or tomorrow’s lunch. Many Native communities are unprepared for months of economic paralysis. And in the worst cases, isolation measures are already causing emergencies.
“The little food we had left is gone,” said Adolfo Jusayú, 55, a father of four young boys.
Last week, with his income as a taxi driver halted by Colombia’s countrywide quarantine, all he could give his boys for the day was a drink made of cornmeal called chicha and a single arepa each.
Across the Americas, diseases brought in by outsiders once erased or devastated many Native nations, and this legacy remains strong in collective memories. In recent decades, diseases like measles and swine flu have wreaked havoc on some communities.
Already, more than a dozen Indigenous groups have reported cases of Covid-19, including the Yukpa in northern Colombia, the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in southeastern Canada and the Navajo in the southwestern United States.
In Brazil, Joenia Wapichana, the country’s only Indigenous member of congress, warned recently that the coronavirus could represent “one more genocide” for Native communities.
In response, many Indigenous leaders have taken protective measures into their own hands, in some cases building hand-washing stations within their territories, sealing off their lands and setting up border patrols.
Sometimes, these measures have been effective. In other instances, leaders are finding their efforts thwarted.
In Colombia, which has about 2,000 of the more than 30,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Latin America, Indigenous leaders in the mountainous department of Cauca were threatened by drug trafficking groups after they closed their borders by setting up 69 control points protected by 1,200 guards.
In a March 20 letter publicized on social media, dissident members of the FARC, one of Colombia’s militant groups, said Indigenous patrols found “impeding our mobility” left them “no choice but to act with our arms.”
Years after a peace deal between the FARC and the Colombian government, a swirl of guerrilla groups, paramilitary organizations and crime syndicates remain in the region, and, increasingly, Indigenous people who try to interfere with illegal activity have been found dead.
Elsewhere, including in Ecuador and Brazil, Native leaders have petitioned large oil or mining companies to halt work in their regions, fearful of contamination from outside workers. They have had limited success.
“We are very concerned,” said Andrew Werk, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in north central Montana, after news that the company TC Energy would continue building the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,200-mile project that drew protests in 2016.
Thousands of workers are expected to arrive in the area this summer. The United States government considers pipeline layers to be “essential critical infrastructure workers,” who can be exempted from health-related stop-work orders.
In a statement, the president of TC Energy, Russ Girling, said the company would take measures to “ensure the safety of our crews and community members during the current Covid-19 situation.”
Few places have felt the effects of the virus as strongly as the northern Colombia coastal state of La Guajira, where the Wayuu make up about half of the 800,000 residents.
After surviving war, revolution and generations in one of the region’s harshest landscapes, the Wayuu now find themselves hammered by quarantine-related hunger.
So far, there is just one case of the virus in La Guajira. But Colombia’s nationwide quarantine has paralyzed the department’s tourism and trade economies, shuttering businesses based around small urban centers and leaving parents unable to buy the week’s rice, fish or cornmeal.
Mr. Jusayú, the driver with four hungry boys, was once among the more successful people in the town of Siapana, saving his money to trade in his mud home for a concrete one.
But recently, Mr. Jusayú has been chasing rabbits, looking for meat. At night, he gathers the children — Aldemar, 2, Juan, 4, Jaiber, 6 and Eduard, 9 — in their home, where they open their Bible and pray.
“More than anything we pray about what’s happening in the world,” he said.
“We need immediate help,” he went on, speaking of the situation in La Guajira. “This an emergency.”
Celina Pushaina, a mother of five who lives in Niño Wayuu, a neighborhood in the city of Uribia, said her bicycle taxi was confiscated by the police in the early days of the quarantine, after she tried to continue working.
Working was an act of desperation, she said. Now her children are living on donated rice. “If I don’t earn money,” she said, “I don’t buy and we go hungry.”
María Sijuana, who lives in the city of Puerto López, said her three young children have been surviving mostly on chicha and fried pasta since the quarantine began. “The future is up to God,” she said.
For the Wayuu, the crisis comes in the dry season, and after several years of difficult dry seasons that have exacerbated a longstanding problem of malnutrition.
The crisis also comes as thousands of Wayuu have fled economic collapse in neighboring Venezuela. About 1.5 million people overall have arrived in recent years from Venezuela.
The Colombian government has been working to support vulnerable communities amid the virus’s spread. In March, President Iván Duque said the government would send a one-time payment of about $40 to some of the country’s poorest families.
The ministry of education has also promised to continue its critical school meal program by sending food into millions of homes, a project that will be countrywide by April 20. But logistics are complex in this nation of about 50 million people that is trisected by mountain ranges and connected by long desert roads.
And unable to wait that long, some Wayuu people have begun blocking roads with sticks and branches, trying to publicize their cause.
Some aid groups have scrambled to redesign programs.
The World Food Programme office in La Guajira had to shutter 9 of its 13 community kitchens to protect public health, but is offering food packages instead. Mercy Corps, which gives monthly cash support to about 1,600 families in the department, advanced the mid-April payout by about three weeks.
The group plans to begin distributing hygiene kits soon, which could be critical in an area where thousands do not have regular access to soap or clean water.
Some Wayuu leaders, pointing out that most of their neighbors have long lacked the basics, said these problems might have been prevented had the government fulfilled duties to protect Wayuu laid out in a 2017 decision by the country’s Constitutional Court.
“I am certain the Wayuu will survive,” said Weildler Guerra Curvelo, a Wayuu anthropologist and the former governor of La Guajira.
But “what will be the cost of survival, in human lives, to this community that has resisted so much?” he asked. “How will the authorities help to make sure the cost is as small as possible?”
Reporting was contributed by Dan Bilefsky in Montreal; María Iguarán in Medellín, Colombia; and Ernesto Londoño in Rio de Janeiro.
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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