Remote region of Brazil's Amazon counts 1st COVID-19 deaths

The first deaths from COVID-19 have come to a vast, remote region of the Amazon that Brazil's government says is home to greatest concentration of isolated Indigenous groups in the world.

Experts fear the new coronavirus could spread rapidly among peoples with lesser resistance even to already common diseases and limited access to health care, potentially wiping out some smaller groups.

A 83-year-old Marubo man known as Yovêmpa died of COVID-19 on July 5, the country's Special Secretariat of Indigenous Health said five days later. Two other deaths were reported later by the independent Indigenous Peoples' Coordination.

Yovêmpa was not in an isolated group, but lived in a village close to some of those groups. An organization representing Marubo people on the Itui River said in a statement that the elder Indigenous leader hadn’t left home for months.

“If the virus is not halted immediately, it might arrive and quickly devastate other Marubo communities along the Itui river and exterminate both recently contacted Korubo groups and isolated groups,” the Marubo group said in a statement.

The health secretariat, known as SESAI, said it has recorded 220 coronvirus infections in the Javari Valley, a 33,000-square-mile (85,445 square kilometer) that is nearly as big as Hungary.

Brazil's government says the valley is home to numerous Indigenous groups, 10 of them isolated people who often refuse contact with non-Indigenous peoples because of a history disease and violence against them. SESAI says the total population — not including the isolated — was about 6,200 at last count in 2014, about one-third of them Marubo.

Indigenous leaders have begun trying to muster their own means to provide treatment given a local scarcity of hospital infrastructure. They have turned to a nonprofit, Health Expeditionaries, to build small field infirmaries to treat mild cases so that people don’t need to travel to bigger towns such as Atalaia do Norte, where the health care system collapsed in June with about 400 suspected COVID-19 cases among a population of 13,000 people.

The state of Amazonas, where the Javari Valley lies, was hard hit by COVID-19 in April, which led to mass burials and chaos in hospitals of capital city Manaus. Since June the situation has improved. But in the Javari Valley, 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from Manaus, the pandemic remains at early stages.

The first coronavirus cases in the Javari region came five weeks ago. Indigenous leaders from various ethnicities near the Itui river called on the federal government to adopt urgent measures to stop the spread.

But the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley complained that the government had failed to set up checkpoints as promised to limit access to their lands.

Leaders of the Matses people, who straddle Brazil's border with Peru, made a similar request in a June 29 letter to authorities, and said their need for protection had not been met.

On Tuesday, the government's National Indigenous Foundation issued a statement denying accusations of failures in its response during the pandemic. It said its critics had backed the “old socialist indigenous policies of welfare and patronage, which caused so much disgrace for Brazilian Indigenous groups.”

Health Expeditionaries, aided by SESAI doctors and nurses, plans to dispatch 50 small field infirmaries with oxygen equipment, radio communications and energy generators throughout the Amazon in the next month. Brazil's Defense Ministry said on Friday one of its helicopters will be in a mission with SESAI staffers to deliver equipment for another seven infirmaries into the Javari Valley.

Ricardo Affonso Ferreira, president of the nonprofit, said the small infirmaries can help up to 10 people who face difficulty breathing. The Indigenous treated so far stay between two and four days at the facilities, he told The Associated Press.

“With this virus every minute counts, so we will travel in whichever way we can to deliver the remaining units of care,” Ferreira said, adding he expects the whole operation with the helicopter to take at least 20 hours.

Local leader Beto Marubo said that up to 900 Indigenous people from several groups are at growing risk of contagion on the shores of the Itaquai River, which stretches to the city of Atalaia do Norte.

“COVID-19 might have already reached the river Itaquai, where the Kanamari groups live," he said. "It is close to where most of the isolated groups in the Javari Valley live,” he said.