Covid-19 fears grow for indigenous South Americans as Yanomami teen tests positive

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Bruno Kelly/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

Fears over the devastating impact coronavirus could have on South America’s indigenous communities have grown after a teenager from Brazil’s Yanomami people tested positive for the illness in the Amazon.

The 15-year-old is reportedly being treated in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, the northern Brazilian state where much of the Yanomami reserve is located.

Related: 'Coronavirus could wipe us out': indigenous South Americans blockade villages

The teenager was admitted last Friday complaining of chest pains, breathing difficulties and a sore throat and tested positive for the illness on Tuesday.

Authorities say the boy – who is reported to have travelled back into the Yanomami reserve last month after classes at his school were suspended – is one of seven indigenous Brazilians to test positive for the coronavirus in three Amazon states: Pará, Amazonas and Roraima.

Public health specialists have warned coronavirus could wreak havoc on indigenous groups in countries such as Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. Highly infectious diseases such as measles, smallpox and flu viruses have a long and horrific track record of decimating such communities.


“If this virus gets into the villages it will cause a huge amount of death,” Sofia Mendonça, a Brazilian public health physician who works with indigenous communities, told the Guardian recently.

The Yanomami reserve – a vast expanse of rainforest larger than the island of Ireland - was created almost three decades ago in an attempt to protect them after tens of thousands of gold miners invaded their lands in the 1980s.

Contact with those miners proved calamitous for the Yanomami: one in five are said to have died during that decade as a result of illness or violence.

In recent years the gold miners and threats to Yanomami life have returned. Activists say 20,000 illegal prospectors are currently laying waste to their preserve while Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has vowed to allow commercial mining in such areas.

The Amazônia Real website said Yanomami leaders suspected wildcat gold miners were responsible for bringing coronavirus into their 26,000-strong community.