Under Bolsonaro healthcare is a form of violence
On Sunday the 9th of august, activists all over the world demanded attention for the precarious living conditions of indigenous peoples in Brazil’s Amazon forest. The ‘Indigenous Emergency Action’ demanded attention for deforestation, which has increased by 98% since Bolsonaro took office, and for the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people belonging to minority groups in Brazil.
Activist organization Brazil’s Indigenous People Articulation (APIB) is the driving force behind the ‘Indigenous Emergency Action’. The maracá, an instrument traditionally applied during war and festivities, functioned as a uniting symbol. The protesters hoped their message would resonate throughout the entire world.
More than 7946 indigenous people have caught the disease and there have been more than 177 deaths.
The number of victims of COVID-19 in Brazil looks more alarming by the day. Indigenous people are especially vulnerable to the disease; on the 20th of July, official numbers reflect that 7946 indigenous people had caught the disease and that there had been 177 deaths.
These numbers are up for discussion. Serious questions have been raised on the official registration of COVID-19 contaminations and deaths in Brazil.
This is why in May APIB, the organization behind the protest, launched a national committee that is in direct contact with the tribes in the Amazon rainforest. This way, daily reports can be issued outside of the government’s realm. On the first of September, the APIB reported 29070 infections, 760 deaths and 156 affected communities.
For many minorities in Brazil, the coronavirus is just another threat in a long series of threats. All kinds of precarious communities, ranging from indigenous communities in the Amazon to black Brazilians in the favelas, have found their living conditions increasingly under pressure since Bolsonaro took office.
Deforestation and the pollution of the indigenous people’s source of life
Protests for the preservation of the rainforest, which is the indigenous people’s source of life, are by no means a new phenomenon. Under Bolsonaro, the already fragile land was aggressively deforested and parts of it privatized.
In the run-up to the 2018 elections Bolsonaro vowed to leave the land of the native Brazilians untouched. Still, 72 certificates were awarded to private farms in April 2020 alone. This allows these companies to occupy land for which indigenous communities have claimed official recognition. In these cases, presidential approval was the only thing missing from the application process.
In 2012 FUNAI, the government agency for the protection of indigenous communities, issued another decree. This was to ensure that those areas could not be bought up by private owners. But on April 22, a new decree revoked the protection. Since then, it became possible to privatize land officially claimed by indigenous communities.
Cattle farming, gold mining and soy cultivation in particular are disrupting the communities’ habitats, says Alessandra Korap. She is a Munduruku chief and president of their advocate Pariri Association.
Soy cultivation causes mercury to end up in the Munduruku people’s drinking water. In addition, they already saw the construction of a hydroelectric dam, accompanied by the announcement of a new railway line to transport goods from those industries out of the rainforest. Both threaten the ecosystem and result in dislocation of local communities. “It is said that this will be done sustainably, but these interventions can’t take place without deforestation,” Korap said.
Various indigenous tribes therefore developed their own strategy to protect as much land as possible against the expansion of industrialization. They call it a “retomada”, literally “a revival”, in which they actively expand their habitat themselves. This is because the Amazon forest is not only a source of life for them, but also sacred ground. The Munduruku believe that they reincarnate in the forest, meaning that they are surrounded by sacred places on a day-to-day basis. If that sacred area is destroyed, they are left restless, says Korap.
Yet Korap also emphasizes how the importance of the rainforest transcends that of her own community. “The planet only lives where there are forests. The forest, the water, feeds the planet. Therefore, indigenous peoples must be respected.”
First logging and monoculture, now COVID-19
‘We don’t want to beg. All we ask is the respect we need to be able to live according to our culture.’
For a long time, indigenous communities had health centers that could accommodate them during emergencies, Korap said. They were run by chieftains. According to the Munduruku chief, their facilities were closed during the lockdown. The Munduruku had to rely largely on natural resources in the fight against COVID-19. They even had to refer themselves to NGO’s to obtain respiratory equipment.
Critics and activists accuse Bolsonaro of executing a deliberate strategy. “Bolsonaro presents indigenous Brazilians as rogue vagabonds, who contribute nothing to the state”, says Ali Rocha. Based in London, she is an activist at Brazil Matters and is at the forefront of the protest against the president.
At the beginning of July, Bolsonaro used his veto on a bill to provide drinking water and emergency aid to the indigenous communities. The reason? The emergency aid would be “contrary to the public interest”, “too costly” and would not “guarantee new revenues”. “We don’t want to beg,” Korap says. “All we ask is the respect we need to be able to live according to our culture. We want to teach our children to fish and pass on our way of living.”
In addition, the chief explains how the disinformation on the virus had caused the Munduruku to underestimate the threat of COVID-19. “We didn’t understand how serious it was. Ships docked on our bays and their crews walked into our stores without gloves or face masks. We were not alarmed by this. Members of our community who saw Bolsonaro on television told us not to be afraid and that protection was not necessary.”
Meanwhile, the Munduruku lost 14 members to COVID-19. Most of them were ancient chieftains, often considered the “libraries” of the rainforest. In this way the Munduruku instantaneously lose years of knowledge and, along with this, pertinent symbols that represent them to local authorities.
From the rainforest to the city
Due to the dismantling of their own health centers, indigenous Brazilians are compelled to move to the cities. Shelter awaits within the public health system, which has become unsafe under the reign of Bolsonaro. Before the pandemic, serious cuts had already been made on public healthcare. In 2019, for example, 20 billion Brazilian real, more than 3 billion euros, in healthcare investments was canceled. And in the midst of a pandemic, the effects of such a measure are unavoidable.
To cope with the large numbers of people in need of care, local interim hospitals were set up. The Brazilian Report, an independent online medium, reported in June how government officials aggressively inspect those hospitals. In addition, Bolsonaro is alleged to have called on citizens to enter the hospitals and film whether the need for them to exist is really as overwhelming as claimed.
On July 26, Bolsonaro lifted the lockdown in Brazil. By then the country’s death count had already surpassed 86,000.
‘We have a George Floyd every day’
Indigenous Brazilians aren’t the only ones suffering disproportionately from COVID-19. “The favelas have changed radically,” says nursing student Isabela Gomes. She lives in the Alto do Coquerinho favela in Salvador. “People are hungry and need to fight for survival.”
Food is distributed, but the poorest among us are risking their health because they have to gather. In addition, the benefits provided are so scarce that despite the pandemic, many still have to go to work to meet their basic needs,” Gomes continues.
Her confidence in public hospitals is low. They are overrun with the sick and are understaffed, Isabela says. This means that doctors have to deal with patients in a hurry. “In theory, everyone from the favelas has the right to healthcare, but we have to ask ourselves the question of what exactly that care entails.”
And along with COVID-19 and the widespread inequality in access to healthcare, “police violence also increased in the favelas,” said Ali Rocha from London. “We have a George Floyd every day. Many black women even consciously choose not to have children.”
In May there was the story of Joao Pinto, who died at the hands of police a week before George Floyd. According to The Guardian, the police had stormed into his nephew’s house in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Pinto was playing with 7 friends and was shot during the raid. According to a witness, the police refused to take him to a hospital. After a day of searching, his parents found him 15 miles away.
‘In Brazil, many black women consciously choose not to have children.’
In June, Human Rights Watch warned that 75 percent of the victims of police violence are black. In addition, the human rights organization reports that an average of 6 police murders per day were registered during the lockdown.
Under the hashtag #NinguemSoltaAMaoDeNinguem, or “Everyone keeps their hands together,” LGBTQ +, indigenous people, the poor, blacks and women have long been united in the fight against Bolsonaro. They call his way of governing “necrophiliac politics”, because his policies would normalize murder and exclusion.
The rainforest has also become a dangerous place, says Alessandra Korap. She even claims that those who occupy the land are armed by the government.
Student Isabela Gomes believes that any form of recovery policy is considered inferior to economic policy today. She argues that food prices soared to such an extent that food has become hard to come by in the favelas. According to her, unemployment benefits only cover the most basic of needs.
‘Just because we live in the favelas doesn’t mean that there are no differences between us,’ says Isabela Gomes. ‘Those who are better off ensure that there is food for the very poorest - but they have to gather for that, which increases the risk of contamination. At the federal level, there is so little movement that it’s up to the local governments to intervene. Our reality becomes more surreal by the day.’