The death of the future: Covid-19 among Brazil’s indigenous peoples

The Brazilian government has abandoned its native people during the coronavirus pandemic

Brazilian Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami.
Brazilian Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami.MARTIN BUREAU / AFP

Alvanei Xirinana was the first native Brazilian to die from the Covid-19 pandemic. He was Yanomami and lived in an indigenous village. “Indigenous from the city” and “Indigenous from the village” are terms that describe two ways of life for native peoples. When it comes to tallying deaths from the pandemic, the question of territory matters as much as ethnicity in disputes over who is Indigenous and who isn’t. Fifteen-year-old Alvanei Xirinana lived as you would imagine native peoples living: far from any town, speaking his own language, practicing his own beliefs, occupying a communal dwelling.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said absolutely nothing about the deaths of Indigenous people during the coronavirus pandemic. The only words anyone in his administration have pronounced about Alvanei Xirinana came from Minister Damares Alves, the official in charge of Brazil’s Indigenous policy, who hinted at evidence of “criminal contamination,” suggesting that the young boy died from biological warfare rather than poor healthcare policies. Lacking any evidence, Minister Alves’s delirium is a sleight of hand meant to cover up how the government has abandoned Brazil’s indigenous population. Raoni Metuktire, leader of the Kayapó people, says: “Bolsonaro is using the pandemic to exterminate the indigenous people.” If any crime has been committed, it was the president’s crime against indigenous peoples. Villagers cannot practice social distancing because their lands have been invaded by prospectors, loggers and land-grabbers. Not to mention global capital.

So what did Alvanei Xirinana die from? Covid-19 is a disease caused by a virus which takes advantage of the open wounds of a body that has resisted enduring inequality. Before Alvanei was attacked by the novel coronavirus, he had survived malaria and malnutrition, harrowing diseases endemic to people living in extreme poverty in Latin America; he had survived the pernicious inequality faced by Indigenous peoples and forest peoples. Alvanei Xirinana died because he is indigenous in Brazil. All Covid-19 did was speed up his death.

The 1950s measles epidemic showed how brutal a new disease can be for the original people residing on the border between Brazil and Venezuela. Brought in by travelers, the measles virus slaughtered one-third of the Yanomami nation. Alvanei Xirinana was probably a member of the fourth generation of survivors of the measles epidemic. The elders tell the stories of these epidemics, handing memories down from generation to generation. Carlos Fausto, an anthropologist who leads ethnographic memory projects, like filming videos in the villages, says that “from the beginning of colonization, native peoples have had to learn within their bodies what an epidemic is.” He recounts a recent conversation with his pamü (cousin), Kanari Kuijuro, who is from Canarana, a town in the Xingu Indigenous Territory: “[Fausto] Pamü, you can’t risk it. You can only return if you go into quarantine. It’s a very serious disease. [Kuijuro] I know, pamü, it’s like measles in the time of my grandfather Agatsipá.”

Covid-19 is a serious disease for all bodies lacking immunity, but it is even more serious for those lacking any protection from the government, like black and indigenous people. According to the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples Association (Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, or APIB), 2,390 indigenous persons have contracted Covid-19 and 236 have died. Ninety-three of Brazil’s 305 Indigenous groups have been struck. The federal government refutes these numbers. Besides prohibiting the publication of official data about the general population, Bolsonaro has also created his own classification system for determining who is indigenous; according to his categorization, 85 have died, because only those who live in villages are indigenous. “City Indians” are another kind of people, says the xenophobia of authoritarians.

Sonia Guajajara, coordinator of the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples Association, describes Bolsonaro “as a declared enemy” of indigenous peoples. Sonia Guajajara, who wears a “cocar” headdress and was vice-presidential candidate in the elections that brought Bolsonaro to power, exemplifies the fallacy of the “indigenous from the city” versus “indigenous from the village” dichotomy. “Our existence is our resistance,” says Guajajara, who believes the Covid-19 pandemic brings the “risk of a new genocide,” accompanied by ecocide against the Amazon. Despite the danger presented by the coronavirus, Guajajara is not self-quarantining, because the death of Alvanei Xirinana forebodes a coming tragedy – like the tragedies experienced by her ancestors.

Debora Diniz is a Brazilian anthropologist and a researcher at Brown University.

Giselle Carino is an Argentinean political scientist and CEO/regional director of IPPF/WHR

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