Indigenous communities are subject to “genocide”.

Credit: Family Handout

This is Isarire Lukukui Karajá.
He died on August 15, 2020 at the age of 60.

It took four Covid-19 tests and a false diagnosis of pneumonia before Isarire Lukukui Karajá was admitted to a hospital in Brazil. Finally, on August 13th, he tested positive.

The next day, his older sister died of the virus.

When his condition worsened and other health problems made him worse, his daughter Tuinaki Karajá asked her father to hold on. “I said to him, ‘Please dad, fight for your life.” Shortly after Tuinaki returned home, the phone rang. Her father had died.

More than half of Brazil’s 800,000 indigenous people live in remote areas, including reserves. Many are far from hospitals, lack basic sanitation, and are more susceptible to disease due to isolation from the outside world. Even people in urban areas have difficulty accessing public health care, have high rates of pre-existing health conditions, and are often treated as second-class citizens.

All of this has helped indigenous Brazilians become infected with coronavirus almost twice as often as the general population in the country.

Many of the 3,800 Karajá that Isarire came from live in the Santa Teresa do Morro indigenous reserve in Tocantins state, according to the independent non-profit Socio-Environmental Institute. Isarire’s father had been the leader of the reserve, and when he died he passed that role on to his son. In the reserve, he was known for his singing, for making delicate, feathered traditional headgear, and for being someone to ask for advice. In 2005, he became the first native to earn an accounting degree in Brazil.

“My father did a lot for the indigenous communities. He was a leader, ”said Tuinaki. “He would say, ‘I’m doing this because I like it, I want to see my people well.'”

When European colonialists came to South America 500 years ago, there were an estimated 11 million indigenous people. Within a century the population had decreased by 90%, mainly due to introduced diseases.

Coronavirus has sparked fears that something similar could happen again.

Even before the pandemic in Latin America, the average life expectancy of indigenous people was 20 years shorter than that of the general population, according to the United Nations Development Program.

When the outbreak began in Brazil, where the third highest number of cases were reported, activists warned the government had not done enough to help people like Isarire. They said illegal mining and deforestation of indigenous areas – which has increased since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in last year – could bring the virus to vulnerable communities.

Indigenous peoples are so scared of coronavirus that some filed a lawsuit to force the federal government to put in place security measures. When Brazil’s Supreme Court announced a partial victory in August, a judge said it was no exaggeration to label the situation as genocide. Indigenous communities in some countries, including Brazil, have isolated themselves protectively.

The tragedy for Aboriginal people around the world is that they have already lost so much to colonizers. Some tribes were exterminated. Those who are left face another threat.

“These elderly people are the keepers of knowledge, languages, traditions, festivals and rituals,” said Dinaman Tuxa of the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples’ Articulation. “We lose a lot more than people, we lose our culture, our nation.”