COVID-19 is roiling every corner of the globe, even in the most remote regions of the Amazon. Indigenous people there, in the United States and other countries are particularly hard hit by COVID.
Inequality is a COVID super spreader.
International petroleum and lumber companies relentlessly seek to extract more resources from the Amazon. Ancestral lands owned by Matses people for eons can be sucked up in corporate land grabs.
In the United States, the Dakota Access Pipeline over sacred tribal lands is just one example of treaty violations and exploitation. One journalist wrote Standing Rock was like proposing construction of a pipeline under Jerusalem.
Native Americans have some of the highest rates of COVID death and infection. They grapple with other diseases, lack of access to adequate health care, food and water, centuries of discrimination and inherited trauma.
“If COVID has a silver lining, it is reading headline after headline exposing disparities in health care and demanding more work to redress them,” said Libby Tronnes, Bradley University assistant professor of history with a specialization in Native American studies.
“Inequalities have an impact on everyone. This is a large country, and sometimes it is easy not to see disparities. COVID is exposing them.”
Most Americans are unaware of the chronic problems created by lack of access on reservations. Tronnes cites a visit by then-President Bill Clinton to a reservation when Clinton pledged to push for high-speed internet access on the reservation. The response was “How about access to clean water?”
She said hand washing without access to clean water is impossible. Social distancing is impossible with generations of families living in small, inadequate housing. Regular visits to physicians are impossible when there are poor roads, little public transportation and clinics may be hundreds of miles away. When there are no cell towers on reservations, telemedicine is impossible. When ancestral lands are taken, traditional access to food is taken.
Violence against Native American people practicing traditional spear fishing in Wisconsin, where Tronnes grew up, led to mandating Native American studies in public school curriculums in the state. It also drew Tronnes to scholarly research in Native American history.
It is through education that disparities of COVID rates can be understood within the framework of racial injustice, she said.
These are similar problems Noah Sabich tackles. Sabich, originally from Springfield and now managing director and founding member of Cimbria Capital in Milwaukee, volunteers with Acate Amazon Conservation, a nonprofit co-founded with Dr. Christopher Herndon and William Parks. The organization provides resources for the Matses people of the Amazon regions of Peru.
Acate recently pulled off a huge emergency relief effort for Matses people who had been trapped in the jungle capital of Iquitos when Peru’s military imposed a strict COVID lockdown. The 180 Matses in Iquitos at the time of the lockdown had no food, no lodging and were barred from traveling back to Amazonian villages, often a week-long journey away by boat.
“The risks of infection were high and it seemed like an insurmountable challenge,” Herndon said, but an online appeal and the leadership of a Matses chief resulted in the successful transportation of the travelers back home.
The rights of indigenous people are tested by COVID, said Herndon, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Seattle, Wash. Herndon says half his medical education came from Harvard and Yale. The other half came from the Amazon.
“COVID is affecting every corner of the world,” he said. “The pandemic provides a clear focus on inequalities and limited access to health care.”
Acate recently helped the Matses compile a 1,000-page encyclopedia of traditional, plant-based medicines and estasblish an apprenticeship program to help preserve ancient knowledge. The organization provided resources to help the Matses create maps of their territories. That is especially useful in rebuffing corporate land exploitation.
Walls and national borders don’t contain COVID, dialogue and trust can contain the virus, Herndon said, adding, “There is no medical, financial or ethical justification for not treating everyone.”
He draws a link between America’s deeply flawed access to healthcare and the skyrocketing rates of COVID infection and death.
“Socio-economic disparities are compounding and creating more healthcare challenges. I’m afraid COVID is not the end. There are more to come,” he said, noting that Matses people protect the rain forests and they need resources to resist outside forces trying to exploit the land for timber and petroleum. Protection of the environment and indigenous cultures is a necessary part of any successful strategy against COVID.
Sabich said, “COVID has triggered economic devastation” and when universities eliminate departments that don’t directly translate into jobs, people lose the ability to see issues from a holistic, multi-dimensional perspective.
“Is life purely pragmatism and money? I think not, and that’s coming from an investor,” he said. “What’s worth investing in if we are not informed by the past and knowledge systems that transform thinking?”
Gaining trust is a major issue for all organizations working with indigenous cultures.
“Modernity encroaches on their lives, and their sovereignty is not respected. Extractive industries do not view human rights, the environment and sustainability,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms racial and ethnic minorities are at disproportional rates of infection and death from COVID-19. Risk factors include discrimination, limited access to health care, jobs, housing and education. Nationwide, Black people are dying at 2.1 times the rate of white people, CDC research shows.
“In the United States, the health care system is complex and deeply flawed. Care is based on payers, political agendas and decision makers. Every country has its own specifics, but in the U.S., the pandemic is out of control,” Herndon said.
“We live with a one-world philosophy thinking humankind is a system apart from nature. That’s false. Habitat disturbances and socio-economic disparities compound health challenges.
How we live in the world has to change.”
There are no longer “faraway places,” the world is intimately connected, he said.