The COVID-19 pandemic is on everyone’s mind, including ours at Rainforest Foundation US. We want to share with you some reflections from our team and the steps we are taking to address the potential impact of this virus on the indigenous communities we work with.
Indigenous communities are exceptionally vulnerable to disease, not to mention epidemics. Volumes have been written on the effects of smallpox, measles and other viruses – many of them intentionally introduced – on indigenous populations during the colonization of the Americas. Without millennia of exposure to Western viruses, many indigenous peoples have experienced reduced immunity to illnesses as innocuous as the common cold. As recently as 2018, the Yanomami in northern Brazil suffered a devastating measles outbreak introduced by illegal gold miners.
Indigenous communities are often located in remote regions with very little access to health care. While geographic isolation can buffer them from many of the contemporary disease-enabling environments such as airports and subways, it only takes one infected visitor from the outside to introduce a new illness to a community. Public health facilities in indigenous communities – if they exist at all – are often understaffed and severely under-equipped to deal with serious outbreaks. Meanwhile, diseases like dengue fever and malaria have ravaged indigenous communities for decades, and treatments are often inadequate for even well-understood diseases.
We see the outbreak of COVID-19 as the result of many of the same pressures that we and our partners struggle against every day: the climate crisis, deforestation, threats to food security and the marginalization of rural communities. COVID-19 is a virus that originated in animals and was passed to humans, like SARS, MERS, Ebola and bird flu. Deforestation and the climate crisis are putting increased pressure on wildlife-human interactions and are a clear and strong driver of infectious disease transmission.
Meanwhile, remedies to curb pandemics may in fact lie in the biodiversity of the rainforests. Tropical forests have thus far supplied the ingredients of up to 25% of modern Western drugs. But providing these remedies can only happen if we protect the forests and the people who know them best, in particular the forest resources and the healers and cultural practitioners who have held this knowledge for generations. Safeguarding these solutions can only begin with guaranteeing indigenous peoples’ rights.
Fortunately, the majority of the activities Rainforest Foundation US supports are conducted by indigenous community members who do not need to leave their home territories. Despite this, Rainforest Foundation US has suspended further travel to countries and communities in which we work and will continue to comply with all health guidelines being issued by authorities in Peru, Guyana, Brazil, Panama and the USA.
While there have been cases reported in all of the countries in which Rainforest Foundation US works, none of our partners nor their communities have yet reported cases of COVID-19. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, along with our partners.
Through our advocacy, Rainforest Foundation US continues to raise awareness about the lack of health care for indigenous communities, especially as deforestation and degradation of landscapes has reduced the availability of traditional medicines, impacted water quality and exposed communities to viruses that they would not otherwise encounter.
Our thoughts are with the people across the world who have been affected by this pandemic.
Rainforest Foundation US