Pandemics and the Indigenous: Seeing it differently - answering it differently?

Themed article


"All this destruction is not our mark. It is the footprint of the whites, the trail of you on earth."

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami[1]

Covid-19 has led to more than 279 thousand deaths around the world, with 4.02 million people infected.[2] Within the risk groups, one that has called our attention is the indigenous people of the Amazon Rainforest. In this paper, we discuss how the Amazonian Indigenous appear to be coping with this disease. We start with a brief history of how the Indigenous people in South America were impacted by diseases brought by Europeans in the Conquest and Colonization process. Then noted are a few of the apparent  challenges for Indigenous people in four of the biggest countries in the Amazon basin, after epidemics in general, but also within the present Covid-19 context where information is scarce and where isolation responses by the indigenous make estimates of impacts very unclear. The article finishes with comments about how members of civic society and academia are responding publicly.

The disease is an intrusion….because of the physical vulnerability of indigenous populations to a new contamination.

The Amazon is the world's largest rainforest. It covers most of the Amazon basin. This basin encompasses 7,000,000 km2 (2,700,000 sq mi), of which 5,500,000 km2 (2,100,000 sq mi) are covered by the rainforest.[3] This region includes territory belonging to nine nations. The majority of the forest is contained within Brazil, with 60% of the rainforest, followed by Peru with 13%, Colombia with 10%, and with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.[4]

It is also the ancestral home of three million indigenous. They are divided into 350 ethnic groups (400 tribes), each with its own language, culture, and territory[5]. According to the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), about 9% (2.7 million) of the Amazon's population is still made up of indigenous people, more than 60 tribes remaining largely isolated.[6]

When whites arrived in South America, around 1500, they brought with them diseases like flu, pneumonia, intestinal parasites, and infections of various types which decimated more than half the indigenous population.[7] In the first 300 years of European Conquest, typhus, smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague decimated up to 95% of the population of the hemisphere. These were unknown diseases to them, for which the shamans had no means of healing.

This event is known as ‘The Biological Cataclysm’, an expression used by anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns[8] to describe the effect of epidemics brought by European invaders on Amerindian populations. Placing all epidemic episodes on a timeline would be an almost impossible task. However, the following timeline reproduces some of these events, enough to alert us to the historical vulnerability of indigenous populations to biological agents imported into their territories.[9]

What we need to investigate is whether and why Covid-19 is so frightening for the indigenous.[10]

As the disease is an intrusion, such as smallpox in the 16th century, we fear the past repeating itself. First, this is because of their physical vulnerability to a new contamination. Secluded communities may also be exposed to external doctors arriving in their villages. Moreover, many live in areas far from the urban centers where (still few) hospitals are located. The reality for the Indigenous communities in the Amazon Rainforest is a precarious one. In addition to Covid-19, hunger and lack of resources are already very real threats (e.g. due to economic and deforestation intrusions) for many of those within these 400 ethnic groups/.[11] So, let us take a look at what is happening in some countries of the Amazonian basin.

In Peru, Indigenous leaders closed the borders to their communities, hoping on isolation as the best way to protect themselves from the threat of the new virus.[12] Since the start of the pandemic, 55 indigenous people, including 18 people at the initial contact point, have contracted Coronavirus. Moreover, now, after the isolation, famine is a substantial and growing problem for these communities.[13] The impact of Covid-19 accentuates existing inequalities. Moreover, the continuation of illegal mining in some areas of La Pampa, and recent cases of Covid-19 in Madre de Dios, have increased fears of the possibility of a faster and more broad spread of the virus to these indigenous communities.[14]

starve to death or die infected by the new Coronavirus

In Colombia, La FM reveals that more than 500,000 indigenous families live in conditions of humanitarian crisis.[15] In Leticia, the principal city of the Colombian Amazon, many of the dead are documented (493 deaths in May) but experts are convinced actual numbers are much higher.[16] Inside the Colombian scenario, there are no laboratories to process tests nor a clear road connection with the rest of the country. Fifty-eight % of the Colombian Amazon region's native population are "at risk of extinction" in the face of the pandemic (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia - Onic).[17] According to Fernanda Doz Costa, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Americas, without help from the Colombian government the indigenous people are facing two possible outcomes:18]

'Colombian authorities must adopt additional social protection measures for populations in situations of vulnerability and most likely to contract Covid-19. If the authorities do not take urgent action, indigenous peoples will find themselves at a crossroads with two unthinkable paths: starve to death or die infected by the new Coronavirus.'

Onic also reports, for example, there are about 90 indigenous people in the community of Peñas Blancas (Riosucio, Chocó) under observation due to possible contaminiation with Coronavirus, as they (especially children) present symptoms that coincide with the Covid-19.

In Bolivia, Covid-19 has also accentuated political crisis and economic fragility [19]. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, with a severe lack of healthcare. Additionally, Bolivians are struggling against the pandemic whilst in the middle of a confusing state-military expansion situation. Patacamaya, a few kilometers away from the Bolivian capital, La Paz, is one of the indigenous communities in Bolivia hit by Covid-19, where several cases have been confirmed.[20]

Ironically, attempts in Brazil to isolate regions have reduced resources to forest monitoring

In Brazil, the situation is catastrophic. On one side, we have the Brazilian National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI), banning visitors into indigenous territories to prevent transmission of Covid-19. On the other side, President Jair Bolsonaro is aiming to alter the law so that mining companies can enter indigenous territories, and, with his tacit approval, thousands of illegal gold miners are currently extracting gold in many of them, especially in the Yanomami territory. FUNAI is not be able to prevent gold miners from invading indigenous communities.

Ironically, attempts in Brazil to isolate regions have reduced resources to forest monitoring such that a massive new wave of fires and deforestation (for cows, soya and the like) can take place[21], thus adding to existing value chain and infrastructure intrusions on the indigenous, across this region[22]. Now regulation MP- 190[23] (May 2020) on land 'registration', will drastically change the rules on land tenure regularization on federal public lands.[24] In other words, it will regularize the takeover (grabbing) of public lands in protected areas as indigenous lands, traditionally occupied territories, and remnants of forests in private and public areas not yet registered.[25]

The following map shows the indigenous communities in Brazil most affected by Covid-19. Of 163 cases confirmed amongst indigenous people, 75 are in Alto Rio Solimões, 24 in Manaus,18 in Parintins, and 9 in Yanomami lands. The problem is still not so clear though, as figures are scarce from secluded communities. Covid-19 seriously threatens but still seems (based on official figures) to be an essentially urban phenomena (interview, UFAM scientist, 9/5/2020) – AT THE MOMENT!


In the context of the probable advance and potentially devastating impacts of the Covid-19[26] on indigenous groups, how is civil society articulating their concerns and suggestions for this threatening situation?

In the past, social isolation has been used by Brazilian Indians in the face of diseases they did not know, based on a strategy for collectivizing individual sacrifice.[27]

'I think that in the current pandemic situation[28], we indigenous people can offer inspiration for resisting diseases, genocides, ethnocides, and ecocides for more than 500 years without giving up our dreams in the search for ancestral territories and otherness.'

Casé Angatu Xucuru Tupinambá[29]

The question is whether this will be enough this time? In this vein, famous photographer Sebastião Salgado[30] (UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and honorary member Academy of Arts and Sciences) has expressed his/others worry about the possibility of Covid-19 leading to genocide amongst the indigenous. Their manifesto, ‘Help us protect the Indians of the Amazon from Covid-19’ published by the Journal du Dimanche[31] has more than 236 thousand signatures. They ask that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to take immediate steps to defend the Indigenous from the threat of the pandemic.

….this virus illustrates that the time is right to make a radical turn in the way we approach equity and sustainable economy.

In this context, how has academia and civil society responded in this country (the Netherlands)? Here, scientific concern is both specific to indigenous and local populations rights but also critical of the environmental effects of national and multinational companies (investors; land buying insurance groups; industrial / logistics technology suppliers) activities in the region.[32] Such public responses simply add to the broader socio-environmental concerns being voiced by a wide range of Brazilian (especially indigenous) organisations at a local[33] and international level.[34] Their rivers and mountains are part of their community, their ecology, their lives.

In support of this need to see this crisis of global processes in a broader socio-economic and ethical context, a group of 170 Dutch scientists (in the field of Sociology and Environmental Science) have publicly declared that the appearance of this virus/pandemic illustrates that the time is right to make a radical turn in the way we approach equity and sustainable economy, within our practices and policies[35]. Seeing what the virus can/might do underlines the fact that we must now make radical reforms to things such as travel, global food chains, growth patterns/targets and distribution/debt burdens of developing countries. The question is, how far will we really change this time?


Alerta de Covid-19, Doença do coronavírus (Covid-19), Google. Viewed 04 May 2020, <

Amazonas Images. About Sebastião Salgado. Viewed: 14/05/2020. <>

Anistia Internacional. Colômbia: povos indígenas poderão morrer de Covid-19 ou de fome se o Estado não agir imediatamente. Viewed: 05 May 2020. <

Arigho-Stiles, O. (2020, April 03). Covid-19 IN BOLIVIA FUELS POLITICAL CRISIS. Discovery Society. Retrieved from:

Carta do Encontro das Águas. (2019, June 19). Observatório da Política Nacional de Saúde Integral das Populações do Campo, Floresta e Águas. Retrieved from:

Coalizão Ciência e Sociedade. (2020, 11 May) A ameaça socioambiental da MP 910/2019 na Amazônia. Retrieved from:

Coates, K. S. (2004). Biological Changes: Ecological Imperialism and the Transformation of Tribal Worlds. In A Global History of Indigenous Peoples (pp. 120-143). Palgrave Macmillan, London. Retrieved from:

Cox, F. E. (2002). History of human parasitology. Clinical microbiology reviews, 15(4), 595-612. Retrieved from:

Colón, M. (2020, 16 April). The Amazon: hunger – the invisible side of Covid-19 'If Covid-19 doesn’t kill people, hunger will'. Latin America Bureau. Retrieved from:

Crespo, J. M. (2020, April 07) Covid-19: Why is it so important to protect indigenous territories? Open Democracy. Retrieved from:

Crooker, P. (2020, April 24). Una población aislada en el altiplano boliviano. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Doody, A. (2020, April 8). Safeguarding biodiversity is essential to prevent the next Covid-19. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. Retrieved from:

DW Brasil. Como ancestrais indígenas se preveniam de epidemias. Viewed: 06 May 2020. <

Gámez, L. (2020, 14 April). O coronavírus pisa nos calcanhares dos povos originários. El País. Retrieved from:

Hackeo Cultural. (2020). Hackear la Pandemia: Estrategias Narrativas en Tiempos del Covid-19. Retrieved from:

Hussey, J. (2014)   Bang to Eternity and Betwixt Cosmos. Google Play Books. Retrieved from:

Klima-Bündnis. COICA - Coordination of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin. Viewed 04 May 2020, <>

Le Journaul du Dimanche. EXCLUSIF. Covid-19 : Salgado, McCartney, Madonna… L'appel urgent pour sauver les peuples indigènes du Brésil. Viewed: 08 May 2020. <

Ministério do Meio Ambiente .Bioma Amazônico. Viewed 04 May 2020, <>

Ministério Público Federal. (2019) Nota Técnica Conjunta 1/20  - 2° CCR, 4° CCR, 5° CCR. 6° CCR. Retrieved from:

Newbery, E. (2020, 7 May). Coronavirus in Colombia: May 7 update. The Bogotá Post. Retrieved from:

Noticia de America Latina Y el Caribe. Emergencia en comunidades de México, Bolivia, Colombia y Perú ante el Covid-19. Viewed: 05 May 2020.

O Globo. Pandemia do coronavírus invade Amazônia colombiana pela fronteira com o Brasil. Viewed: 05 May 2020. <

Pegler, L.J. Widmarck, J.J.A. (2020, May 05). Contesting the Amazon as an ‘Open Space for Development’. The ISS Blog on Global Development and Social Justice. Retrieved from:

Praeli, Y. S. (2020, 04 May). Perú: veinte comunidades indígenas expuestas al Covid-19 tras llegada de once casos positivos a su território. Mongabay Latam. Retrieved from:

Roberton, J. Bodo, L. ( 2020, 11 May) Deforestation of the Amazon has soared under cover of the coronavirus. NBCNews. Retrieved from:

Sacasa, M. C. (2020, 13 April). Apoyar a los pueblos indígenas de Perú en la lucha contra Covid-19. Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo. Retrieved from:

Souza. M.D. ( 2020, 12 May) MP 910 entrega área pública maior que o estado da Bahia para grileiros. Brasil de Fato. Retrieved from:

Straver, F. (2020, April 11). Manifesto of 170 scientists: it's a blunder if we don't get out of the corona crisis greener. Trouw. Retrieved from:

Survival International. BACKGROUND BRIEFING: Amazon tribes. Viewed 04 May 2020, <>.

Vilaça, A. (2020, April 8) A dupla ameaça aos povos indígenas, Revista Serrote. Retrieved from:

World Indigenous Business Forum. (2019). The Indigenous Leadership Development Institute. Retrieved from:

Julienne J. A. Widmarck

Julienne J. A. Widmarck

PhD researcher at ISS

Lee Pegler

Dr Lee Pegler

Assistant Professor at ISS






























[29] the historian Carlos José Santos, also called Casé Angatu Xucuru Tupinambá (alluding to his indigenous roots), professor at the State University of Santa Cruz (Uesc), in Bahia.








Check our website for latest news, upcoming eventsrecent PhD defences, and the ISS library for working papers, PhD theses and the journal Development and Change.