Five things to know about the Colombian Amazon and COVID-19

Apr 30, 2021

Hygiene kits being transported by boat on the Amazon River to indigenous communities in Puerto Nariño, Colombia. Credit: UNICEF WASH Cluster — CERF/ Daniela González

The Amazon River and its vast network of tributaries sustain some 30 million people in eight Latin American countries, connecting Brazil, Colombia and Peru along its main channel.

Here, we outline five things to know about how the pandemic is severely affecting the lives of thousands of indigenous people who live in this region.

Medical Ministry International staff prepare to deliver pandemic-related medical assistance in an indigenous riverside community in Amazonas.
  1. The region is in the eye of the pandemic

The Amazon region was the epicentre of the first wave of COVID-19 infections in South America in 2020. But history repeated itself in less than a year: a second outbreak of the virus in December hit the region harder than the first.

In March 2021, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned about the rising number of infections and the P.1 variant spreading rapidly to the Colombian and Peruvian Amazon — the so-called Amazon Trapeze, where Brazil, Colombia and Peru meet — requiring international attention to avoid a further regional and international spread. In the last week of April, Colombia and Peru recorded their highest death rates since the pandemic began, with more than 400 and 350 deaths per day on average respectively. Brazil and Peru are now among the top 15 countries with the highest mortality rates per million people.

One reason for the spread is people commuting along the Amazon River. This resulted in the closure of the border and Leticia airport in the Colombian territory for over three months this year to help mitigate the spread. Following PAHO’s warning, the Colombian Government prioritized vaccinations for people living in the Amazonas, Guainía and Vaupés Departments, creating the so-called epidemiological wall.

Despite these efforts, the region continues to be an epicentre of the pandemic. The Amazonas Department has recorded the highest number of deaths among Colombia’s 32 departments, with more than 290 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants — a rate more than double the national average.

The region has poor health services with no intensive care facilities. Medical Ministry International, which has a long-standing presence in Amazonas, has been key in the pandemic response, reaching rural indigenous people with its medical boats and providing critical health services to communities since the pandemic began.

Darío Macedo, from the Cocama indigenous group, observes how the Amazon River continues to rise, flooding the banana and yucca crops that are the basis of their diet. Credit: OCHA/Yohana Pantevis

2. Indigenous people are the most affected

The pandemic has accentuated the devastating impact of the underlying historical inequalities that indigenous peoples face. Collaboration between humanitarian and development partners is essential, as is more localization, so that indigenous communities and organizations can have a greater role in the decisions that affect them.

Indigenous communities in rural areas often lack access to essential services. To reach the nearest medical centre, they sometimes must travel along rivers for several days. To access education, health care or jobs, many people leave their villages for peri-urban areas, such as Leticia in the Amazonas Department.

Indigenous people in urban areas also face difficulties. Their most critical need is food — an estimated 59 per cent of people endure moderate or severe food insecurity. Overcrowding, the loss of informal jobs and lack of access to drinking water put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

More than 10,000 urban indigenous people live in the Leticia municipality, mainly in poor suburbs in precarious housing with no access to electricity, water and sanitation. More than 80 per cent of the region’s population is poor, as most people work in the informal sector on low salaries and live in informal settlements. Urban indigenous people also live with the constant threat of losing their identity, culture and language, along with the weakening of the social protection they once enjoyed in their communities.

The children spend the day helping with household chores and studying with manuals provided by the educational institutions during the pandemic. Credit: OCHA/Yohana Pantevis

3. Many children lack education and nutrition

Few children in the Amazonas Department continue their education after primary school. In 2019, more than 80 per cent of children had access to primary school, but only about 65 per cent progressed to secondary school.

Not all indigenous communities have access to education. Even though education is free, most parents cannot afford to let their children continue at school, as they often hunt, fish and work on farms to feed their families.

The children spend the day helping with household chores and trying to complete homework with the guidance manuals provided by the educational institution every three months. Internet connection is almost non-existent in the Amazon, and this year’s school rotation plan has not been initiated due to the high number of COVID-19 infections. This worries María Ester Machín, an indigenous woman who lives on the left bank of the Amazon River, in a small wooden stilt house, with her husband and four children. “I cannot help them with their homework,” she explains. “When there is [money] we recharge [data for mobile Internet]. The teacher said we had to buy a cell phone, but we never have a signal, so we have to go to the shore [to find an Internet connection].”

Food provided at schools is an incentive for children to continue their education, but it also improves their school performance.

The World Food Programme (WFP) provides food assistance in Amazonas. Before the pandemic, the area had a chronic malnutrition rate of 16 per cent in children under age 5, and 44 per cent suffered from anemia.

Darío Macedo and his wife, María Ester Machín, on their way to Leticia municipality. Credit: OCHA/Yohana Pantevis

4. Indigenous women are key for communities’ recovery

Since the pandemic began, indigenous women have played an important role as the main caregivers in the Colombian Amazon. Women elders are also the keepers of culture, continuity, language and traditional knowledge such as ecological calendars, fruit-gathering routes, recipes and medicines. Unfortunately, many of these women died because of the pandemic. With them “part of the knowledge of the jungle and the plants has been lost,” says Betty Souza, a Ticuna indigenous woman, nursing assistant and traditional doctor in the Colombian Amazon.

During the pandemic, many indigenous women have helped their communities become more resilient by using their traditional knowledge to grow medicinal plants and food not only to feed their families but to earn an income through chagra — an agroforestry system unique to the region.

Since May 2020, PAHO, UNFPA, UNICEF and WFP have supported these women in their activities related to water, sanitation and hygiene, health, food security and livelihoods. The Amazon Alliance (Action Against Hunger, Norwegian Refugee Council, Doctors of the World), funded by the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid, complemented UN agencies’ efforts after the first wave of infections.

A maloca, or a communal house, in La Pedrera, an area close to the border with Brazil. Credit: UNICEF WASH Cluster — CERF/Grayson Martínez

5. To save lives, more is needed to support the United Nations plan

When the region registered the world’s highest mortality rates from COVID-19 per 100,000 people last year, the United Nations Resident Coordinators in Brazil, Colombia and Peru came together to develop the Tri-Border Action Plan to support Government responses to urgent needs.

The plan includes parts of the Amazonas in Brazil and Colombia and the Loreto district, home to more than 300,000 indigenous people. At least 119,000 people are expected to benefit directly from the plan. It aims to provide emergency assistance in the sectors of health, food safety and nutrition, shelter, and water, basic sanitation and hygiene, which were identified as priorities by an evaluation mission.

With funding arranged by OCHA from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), more than 30,000 people out of a population of 76,000 are expected to receive assistance in Amazonas in Colombia by the year’s end. But this is a drop in the ocean for the populations of the Amazon Trapeze. Much more is needed to support the national and local organizations that are trying to contain a cross-border crisis but with extremely limited resources.