Brazil

Brazil field hospital a life saver for indigenous stricken by COVID-19

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© UNHCR/Allana Ferreira

Native people are among the hardest hit by coronavirus. A field hospital in Boa Vista is helping save their lives.

By Allana Ferreira in Boa Vista, Brazil

When her COVID-19 test came back positive, Dialisa Mata was unable to hold back the flood of tears. She had heard how dangerous the virus could be, and as an indigenous woman whose people have been hard hit by infectious diseases going back centuries, Dialisa was particularly distressed. “I thought I was going to die,” said the 25-year-old mother of three, a Warao from Venezuela who came down with two telltale symptoms of COVID-19, extreme shortness of breath and fatigue, while living in a packed shelter in northern Brazil. “I began thinking about my family, my children.... What would happen to them? What would happen to me?”

“I started crying so much because I was so afraid,” she said, adding that she also worried about passing the illness on to others in the shelter where she and her family have lived since fleeing Venezuela in 2018.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 70,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 2,000 deaths from the illness were reported among the world’s indigenous population as of early July, and the Pan American Health Organization said nearly 8,000 COVID-19 cases and 177 deaths have been reported among indigenous people living in Brazil.

To save lives, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been supporting a field hospital in Boa Vista, the capital of the northern border state of Roraima, which has the capacity to treat and isolate up to 1,782 COVID-19 confirmed and suspected patients. To date, 625 Venezuelans and many Brazilians – including indigenous people – have received care at the hospital.

UNHCR is aware of at least 19 COVID-19 related deaths among refugees, of whom nine were indigenous Venezuelans. But thanks to the timely care she received at the facility, Dialisa was among more than 570 people who have recovered. Fortunately, her family members, who were quarantined at the hospital, escaped infection.

For indigenous people, COVID-19 represents the latest in the long series of hardships going back to the colonial period, when native populations throughout the Americas were decimated by such illnesses as measles and the common cold.

In recent years, as Venezuela’s crisis deepened, thousands of Warao have joined around five million Venezuelans who have fled widespread shortages of food and medicine, galloping inflation and insecurity at home. An estimated 3,300 Warao have sought safety in neighboring Brazil, together with around 1,700 other indigenous Venezuelans, from ethnic groups including the Pemon, E’ñepa and Kariña.

Many have been driven by dire economic straits to live in crowded quarters, or onto the streets, where coronavirus prevention measures such as hand washing and maintaining social distance can prove impossible. They have also seen their incomes plummet amid stay-at-home orders, and many living in rented accommodation fear eviction.

Shortages and growing insecurity finally pushed Dialisa and her family to abandon their small, once-peaceful village in the northern Monagas region.

“The markets started closing, and there was nothing left to eat,” she recalled. “As people started getting hungrier, many thefts started to happen, and the community was not as secure as it used to be.”

In 2018, her family sold their belongings to pay for the trip southward along with several other Warao families. They made it to Boa Vista and secured spots in a shelter here.

Over half the indigenous refugees and migrants in Brazil have received some sort of support from UNHCR, including emergency relief items, shelter and access to health care – a vital provision in the pandemic.

“Health is a major priority to help support indigenous communities,” said José Egas, UNHCR’s representative in Brazil. “It’s one of the ways in which UNHCR is working hand-in-hand with the Brazilian government’s ‘Operação Acolhida,’ or ‘Operation Welcome,’ which offers assistance with the reception and local integration of Venezuelan refugees and migrants and has been recognized as an example to be followed by other countries in the region.”

While Dialisa made a full recovery, she worries every day about what the pandemic might mean for her mother, who is still back in Venezuela.

“I always call to check on her, and she always tells me to stay here with my family, that there it’s really difficult,” Dialisa said.

With additional reporting by Victoria Hugueney in Brasília, Brazil.