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Amerindians in the face of Covid-19

Amerindians in the face of Covid-19

Current state of affairs and press review


Raphaël Colliaux, IFEA – PUCP – Fondation Fyssen []

Paul Codjia, McGill University – Fondation Fyssen []

Valentina Vapnarsky
Josemaría Becerril Aceves


We are pleased to announce here a list of online works of various kinds (scientific texts, newspaper articles, videos, photo collections) that bear witness to the living conditions of Amerindians during this worldwide health crisis. The list, still under construction and with items grouped into sections, can be accessed via the website of the Société des américanistes (, which is inaugurating a column devoted to this topic. Though because of their personal research interests the compilers have thus far concentrated on the Amazon basin, this reference list will eventually include writings and other materials that describe the situations of Amerindians throughout the Americas in the time of the pandemic.

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As early as April–May 2020, a number of academics, journalists, Amerindian political leaders, and NGO activists set out to document the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the indigenous populations in the Amazon basin. Whether in journal articles, scientific blogs, or popular magazines, all have sounded the alarm, each in their own way, on the health, social, economic, environmental, political, and anthropological consequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the Amazon lowlands. We would like to applaud here their rapid response and the efforts they have already made not only to investigate but also to analyze and reflect on findings in such a short time, in order to expose the dramatic situations in which these populations often find themselves. The pandemic has only added to a context of precarious land tenure, failing health systems, and state policies that disfavor indigenous rights. The case of Brazil under Bolsonaro’s regime is certainly the most tragic.

For this non-exhaustive list, we have gathered texts that offer a fairly wide panorama of the diverse situations and difficulties that Amazonian peoples are facing in these times of Covid-19. Our goal is to allow readers to identify problems, to open research perspectives, and to continue to document, render visible, and support lowland indigenous peoples. Since we are restricted to virtual meetings to avoid acting as vectors of the virus, a large number of researchers who specialize in this region are limited to sporadic exchanges with their contacts and friends in the field, and to gleaning bits of information from social networks or specialized media. The list presented here is meant to facilitate investigations, which is why a survey of current scientific literature on Covid-19 in the Amazon basin appears alongside a press review, and also why the list includes links to raw documents such as health instructions translated into Amerindian languages. We start with scientific articles and special issues of journals, which are followed by journalistic pieces, all under thematic headings.

During this period of isolation due to the pandemic, the very methods of ethnographic research are being tested, especially among non-native researchers. And this is perhaps an important lesson to be learned from this yet-incomplete bibliography: the current health context seems to be accelerating collaborations in the analysis and even in the writing up itself between academics and representatives of indigenous groups. Even better, a substantial number of the articles listed are written by native researchers, especially those related to the Brazilian Amazon. In spite of lock-downs, communication channels have allowed for ongoing monitoring and collection of information (as exemplified by the Facebook page, administered by Emilie Stoll and moderated by Ricardo Fohlhes and Elise Capredon), and also for sharing ideas and collaborative reflection with indigenous contacts in the field, who are often political leaders.

In addition to providing descriptions—often in the form of numerical data—of the epidemic, the articles point to several lines of study. First, a central theme that appears in virtually all the texts is the relationship between indigenous groups, the state, and health systems. The articles highlight the inability of the governments to respond to the health needs of indigenous populations due not only to inequitable health policies, but also—which is probably even more serious—to ignorance of social realities, such as infrastructure, and of Amerindian health practices. The words used by native contacts to describe the situation are quite strong, ranging from the semantic field of abandonment in Andean countries to that of absence of government in Brazil, where indigenous people have no illusions about the Bolsonaro regime’s intentions towards them. Lacking adequate institutional resources to protect their bodies, Amerindians are choosing to protect their territories.

There is clear reaffirmation of claims to territorial sovereignty, which, paradoxically, is reinforced by recommendations in Andean states that indigenous groups close and control access to their lands. As noted by Irène Bellier in several items in the list, the health of people and the “health” of territories are closely connected, a connection that is primarily related to nourishment. It is regularly noted that food produced on indigenous land is one of the conditions for maintaining good health, as opposed to food originating in cities, where the coronavirus runs rampant. The will to protect one’s territory is particularly apparent in struggles to curb logging and gold-mining activities. Along these lines, and perhaps with a hint of irony, Gregorio Mirabal, the coordinator of Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA), recently declared: “Tenemos que hacer un proceso de vacunaciones en todos los territorios de la cuenca amazónica con esa vacuna que se llama “gobernanza territorial indígena” y que es lo único que nos puede salvar” (“We must carry out vaccinations in all the territories of the Amazon basin with that vaccine called “indigenous territorial governance” and that is the only thing that can save us”).

Strikingly, some Amerindian claims to land and autonomy have gained legitimacy in the vacuum left by the state. At the same time, indigenous peoples appear to have been hit hard by a spectacular upsurge in extractive activities, including, among others, logging, oil drilling, and mining. In Peru, as early as May 2020, a series of laws exonerated certain economic sectors from restrictive environmental regulations, and weakened mechanisms for consulting the public before carrying out such activities. The pandemic could thus potentially augur a double movement: first, a decline in the power of the public, and, second, a restructuring of the private sector under many guises, whose activities are often informal, sometimes even criminal. The murders of Amerindian leaders and environmental activists, which have proliferated since the beginning of the pandemic in the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon regions, are a tragic reminder that indigenous lands are coveted more than ever.

Nevertheless, the acceptability of such activities in indigenous lands is debated even within indigenous groups, especially since the health crisis has at times cut off substantial revenue. We have seen the pandemic exacerbate old problems, among them the actions of Protestant evangelical missionaries. Several sources suggest that Protestant pastors take advantage of fear of the virus to consolidate their influence and to build new momentum in proselytizing.

Such missionary activity is all the more worrisome among indigenous groups in so-called “voluntary isolation,” where certain religious factions might be tempted to force contact in the wake of the profound reconfiguration of local political dynamics, the emerging face of which is still barely perceptible. Since at least the 16th century, Amerindians of the Amazon have used distancing and isolation strategies to protect themselves from immunological dangers (smallpox, measles, flu) connected to European colonization, but also perhaps from zoonoses potentially present in the tropical forest (see Stephen Rostain’s article[1]). In many cases, this voluntary isolation has redoubled over the years, as new forms of colonization have appeared and intensified (evangelical and Catholic proselytizing, industrial agriculture, oil exploitation, gold-mining, illegal logging, drug traffic, tourism), in the face of which local public institutions are powerless or perhaps even complacent. Since, given their long self-isolation, these Amerindian communities remain extremely vulnerable to viral and other infectious diseases, Covid-19 constitutes a serious danger that numerous observers are striving to document.

This theme also invites more serious reflection on the notion of “social isolation.” Recent events have brought about a reversal in the perception of the practice, heretofore considered as primitive and anachronistic, associated with Amerindians hostile to modernity. On the contrary, global measures taken to counter Covid-19 reveal, as in a mirror, how these Amerindian lifestyles emerged directly from the social and political—and viral—contexts that these populations have faced; their choice to protect themselves through social isolation is now shared by state governments. In this way, the literature shows the perpetuation, the renaissance, and even the legitimation of voluntary isolation strategies in this region of the world and beyond.

These texts do not just paint gloomy pictures of the current situation. They also bring to light the extraordinary organizational, political, and health resources that Amerindians are mobilizing to protect themselves and to cope with and stem the tide of the virus. Indigenous initiatives are flourishing that promote local medical knowledge and practices and that call for state health policies that are truly intercultural.

The epidemic thus appears to be a “total social fact” in a postcolonial context, a nexus where even divergent funeral practices and eschatological ideas rub against each other. For instance, Bruce Albert alerts us to the tragedy befalling the Yanomami, deprived of the bodies of their deceased kin, which are incinerated by health workers to prevent contagion. In this way, the reference list unveils an “epidemic situation”—to paraphrase Georges Balandier—that brings together more than ever all the local actors: Amerindian populations of diverse lifestyles, various colonizers, private companies, and public institutions, with a viral agent to boot.


[Ameridians & Covid] – Works of a scientific nature

[Ameridians & Covid] – Works of a scientific nature

This first section reports on works of a scientific nature, written by social sciences researchers, often in collaboration with indigenous witnesses of the sanitary situation in their communities of origin.


  • Mundo Amazónico, two issues of the journal, titled « Reflexiones y perspectivas en torno a la pandemia de COVID-19 », have recently been devoted to COVID-19 in the Amazon,


  • Revista Vukapanavo, Volume 3, Issue 3, October/November 2020, Special issue Pandemia da Covid-19 na Vida dos Povos Indigenas, edited by Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), in collaboration with Revista Terena Vukapanavo and the support of Fundação Oswaldo Cruz.


  • COVIDAM, Mai 26, 2020, « Le double choc de la Covid-19 sur une petite communauté d’Amazonie brésilienne », by François-Michel Le Tourneau. The article focuses on the Amerindians of the state of Amapá (Brazil) and the care they received from local health services. The author recounts the testimonies of acquaintances from São Francisco do Iratapuru, a sustainable development reserve of 806,000 hectares, whose inhabitants live mainly from the collection of Brazil nuts. In this place, social distancing seems difficult to maintain, as everyone lives side by side and most of the day-to-day business is managed collectively. Hospitals in the area, meanwhile, are sorely lacking in equipment.



  • COVIDAM, December 16, 2020, « Amazonie, une histoire sans geste barrière », by Stephen Rostain. The article reviews, from a historical perspective, the management of epidemics in the Amerindian Amazon. The author retraces the Amerindian healing techniques, which are based on an excellent knowledge of the tropical pharmacopoeia. He emphasizes that these skills have been amply mobilized in the context of the recent pandemic, and that care protocols, based on a thorough use of medicinal plants, have been attempted in many points of the lowlands.


  • CNRS, Le Journal, September 11, 2020, « Les peuples autochtones à l’épreuve du Covid-19 », by Irène Bellier. Interview of Bellier (CNRS), who synthesised a large amount of data concerning the impact of COVID-19 among indigenous peoples around the world (North America, South America and the Caribbean, Africa, Arctic, Asia, Oceania and the Russian Federation). Bellier reports that mortality rates are particularly high in indigenous groups, due to the often-difficult socio-economic conditions in which they live, which increase their vulnerability to this new infectious agent. The anthropologist also underlines how, in these societies, there is often a close link between the integrity of the territory and the health of individuals.



  • Aparecida Vilaça, Morte na Floresta, Um ensaio seminal sobre o contágio dos povos indígenas no Brasil, éd. Todavia (Coleção Ensaios sobre a pandemia), 2020. Anthropologist Aparecida Vilaça reflects here on the fact that for the first time in centuries, invaders and Amerindians are suffering from the same symptoms when faced with a virus, COVID-19. The book emphasizes that sharing a common vulnerability is an opportunity to rethink the relationship with Amerindian societies.







  • Revista Intercambio, March 21, 2021. Article by Oscar Espinosa de Rivero, professor at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (PUCP) and specialist of the Peruvian Amazon. The author lists the challenges faced by the Amerindian communities of the Peruvian Amazon, confronted with the COVID 19 pandemic, but also with extremely violent pressures on their territories.




  • Luis Joel Morales Escobedo, “El confinamiento y el trabajo de campo en tiempos del coronavirus, Vol. II”, September 8, 2020. In this second episode of a podcast dedicated to fieldwork during the Covid-19 pandemic, anthropologist Luis Joel Morales describes his working conditions with indigenous cooperatives in the highlands of Chiapas. He explains that he had to deal with the scepticism of many of his Tseltal and Tsotsil interlocutors about the disease and the health guidelines, and to adapt accordingly.


  • Jan Rus, “Covid-19 en Chiapas indígena: cuestionando una pandemia oculta”. November 2020. Based on his telephone conversations with former interlocutors, colleagues and students from Tseltal, Tsotsil, Ch’ol and Mam, Mayanist anthropologist Jan Rus criticizes the invisibility, in the Spanish-language press, of the deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in indigenous communities in Chiapas.


[Ameridians & Covid] – Amerindian chronicles

[Ameridians & Covid] – Amerindian chronicles

This section contains testimonies from Amerindians describing their experience of the sanitary situation.








  • Yasnaya E. Aguilar, “Jëën pä’äm o la enfermedad del fuego”, March 22, 2020. In this essay, Mixe linguist Yasnaya Aguilar explores the parallels between the emergence of Covid-19 and the memory of past pandemics in the oral tradition of the Oaxaca Amerindians.


  • Pedro Uc, “Alternativas de resistencia maya en tiempo de pandemia”, August 19, 2020. Yucatec Mayan poet and environmentalist Pedro Uc situates the Covid-19 pandemic in a larger context of impacts on the Amerindian way of life, in particular due to the expansion of monocultures, mass tourism and massive infrastructure projects in the Yucatan peninsula.
[Ameridians & Covid] – Indigenous therapeutic practices

[Ameridians & Covid] – Indigenous therapeutic practices

Based mainly on press articles, this section groups publications reporting curative strategies implemented by some Amerindian groups to combat covid-19.



  • La Mula, articles by anthropologist Luisa Elvira Belaunde on the creation of a Shipibo-Conibo health group called Comando Mantico, in the city of Pucallpa (Ucayali region).






[Ameridians & Covid] – Urban Amerindians and Coronavirus

[Ameridians & Covid] – Urban Amerindians and Coronavirus

This section provides information about the daily lives of Amerindians established in urban centers, in the context of the sanitary crisis.




[Ameridians & Covid] – Extractive activities and the pandemic

[Ameridians & Covid] – Extractive activities and the pandemic

This section looks back at the territorial and social pressures induced by the sudden resurgence of extractive and economic activities in the context of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (oil and mineral extraction, gold mining, logging, drug trafficking, etc.).







  • Daliri Oropeza, “El Tren Maya y la resistencia en tiempos de pandemia”, May 31, 2020. In this journalistic account, Daliri Oropeza describes the main effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in the seaside towns and indigenous territories of the Yucatán Peninsula. Amerindian villages have closed their doors to foreigners, hotels have laid off thousands of Mayan workers, and the national government’s flagship infrastructure project continues despite health restrictions.
[Ameridians & Covid] – The evangelical missionaries

[Ameridians & Covid] – The evangelical missionaries

This section provides information on the increase in the number of proselytizing activities carried out among Amerindians in the context of the health crisis.


Series of reports on anti-vaccine campaigns led by evangelical missionaries. In these investigations, we discover that some actors of the protestant proselytizing movement spread false information about vaccines to convince Amerindians to reject them.

[Ameridians & Covid] – Amerindians in “voluntary isolation”

[Ameridians & Covid] – Amerindians in “voluntary isolation”

This section focuses on populations in “voluntary isolation” in the context of the pandemic. Because of their long-standing isolation, these groups remain extremely vulnerable to infectious and viral diseases.


[Ameridians & Covid] – Photo reports/ Portfolios

[Ameridians & Covid] – Photo reports/ Portfolios

This section refers to various reports that focus on photography. The works mentioned illustrate in particular the therapeutic practices of the Shipibo-Konibo population of the Peruvian Amazon.

  • Ojo Publico