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Natureza e Meio Ambiente / 11/01/2021

Indigenous knowledge to survive in the pandemic

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Indigenous knowledge to survive in the pandemic


Isolation, as a strategy to contain diseases, has been used for centuries, as a sign that preserving life supersedes individualism. To this day, entire tribes move and reform their ways of life in the manner of their ancestors

Historically victims of diseases brought by the “white man”, Brazilian indigenous peoples may look in the past to survive the pandemic of the covid-19, at a time when the Amazon is one of the epicenters of the disease. Since the first contacts with Europeans, many indigenous peoples have resorted to social isolation to protect themselves epidemics - precisely the strategy adopted today worldwide as the most effective strategy for combating the new coronavirus.

“In the face of those past epidemics, our disease protection and cure specialists didn't have much to do. My blessing grandparents said that, in the face of epidemics, they felt powerless, because they did not know the roots of the diseases, they did not know what types of beings caused these diseases, ”says Father Justino Sarmento Rezende, indigenous of the Tuyuka people, a resident of municipality of Santa Isabel do Rio Negro, in Amazonas. “For this reason, they left the communities to live in more remote places until the epidemic passed.”

In other words: in the absence of adequate medicines, isolation was the rule. Rezende remembers that, as a child, in the early 1960s, there was a pertussis epidemic that killed many children in the region. “My older sister died. I managed to escape. Families went to more distant camps to protect themselves, ”he recalls.

“I think that in the current pandemic situation, we indigenous people can offer inspiration for resisting diseases, genocides, ethnocides and ecocides for more than 500 years without giving up our dreams in the search for ancestral territories and for otherness”, he tells DW Brasil the historian Carlos José Santos, also called Casé Angatu Xucuru Tupinambá (alluding to his indigenous roots), professor at the State University of Santa Cruz (Uesc), in Bahia.

Researcher of indigenous ethnology and professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), anthropologist Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino emphasizes in the report that, “even if they could not prevent death”, indigenous peoples “always had their protection strategies”. “In general, they consist of trying to escape contagion centers, when there was a perception that this was possible. Isolation in areas of difficult access to the forest, for example, was and is an option still practiced today, ”he exemplifies.

The shamans always tried to understand what these new diseases were, in order to treat them based on their techniques and knowledge, but over time, however, many began to realize that the “diseases of the whites” were different and required care different those that could be accomplished with your knowledge, points out the anthropologist.

“What we call social isolation has not been practiced only in the past. It is still a current strategy, which is now being used to protect covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. However, it is not exactly a question of social isolation, but of avoiding life in communities located on the banks of navigable rivers and easier contact with cities ”, he says.

“Often, whole families go up to the headwaters of rivers and reform their ways of existence. They start to live in a similar way to their ancestors, which also implies the production of new bodies that are stronger and, at the same time, wiser to deal with the challenges caused by the imminent genocide. ”

For historian Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro, coordinator of the Laboratory for Studies on Ethnicity, Racism and Discrimination at USP, the knowledge inherited Brazilian indigenous populations must be preserved as “vestiges of a secular culture, unique, an important instrument to fight epidemics” . “His knowledge of flora and fauna cures diseases of the body and soul, which are not always valued by men of science”, he says.

Tulio Chaves Novaes, prosecutor, professor and researcher at the Federal University of Western Pará, considers that it takes humility to “effect this learning” with indigenous peoples. “I think that the most relevant learning, taught timelessly by these peoples, butchered by greed and the power of a sovereign Western instrumental reason, is found in ethics”, he points out.

“The attitude of the indigenous always points to the well-being and preservation of the group, to its relevance to the individual. Seen as a whole, in this way, in the logic of the group, the destiny of one is the destiny of the other. The concern with the collective, to the point of justifying individual sacrifice, may give rise to another ethical educational parameter that we need to recover with the history of these peoples. If we had this moral heritage at hand today, without doubt, it would be easier to face common enemies, such as the current coronavirus ”, he considers.

Diseases that have swept lives

According to researcher Paulo Rezzutti, a member of the Historical and Geographical Institute of São Paulo, Jesuit priests reported that between 1554 and 1584 more than 60,000 indigenous people died as a result of epidemics brought by the “white man”. “It was mainly measles and smallpox diseases”, he points out to DW Brasil. “And there was already a funerary collapse. Some tribes even had 20 deaths per day. ”

If in the past smallpox and measles were the main villains, in the contemporary era, long before the new coronavirus, indigenous people already suffered malaria and hepatitis. “They are two of the biggest responsible for deaths in indigenous societies”, points out Cesarino. "I would also mention malnutrition and diabetes which, in the case of some communities, also need to be considered as diseases imposed by the surrounding society."

According to anthropologists Marta Rosa Amoroso and Rafael Pacheco, scientific coordinator and researcher at USP's Center for Amerindian Studies, respectively, “measles, chickenpox, smallpox, malaria, whooping cough, flu, malnutrition, diabetes, high blood pressure and diarrhea are among the diseases that most affect indigenous peoples, historically and today ”.

To DW Brasil, Pacheco pointed out that "the cases of massive depopulation and extermination that occurred in these circumstances are emblematic in the history of republican Brazil, and continue today without a minimally adequate repair".

He recalls historical records, such as “the perplexed account” of the Jesuit priest José de Anchieta (1534-1597) “in view of the breadth and speed of the death of thousands of Tupi in the Baía de Todos os Santos”. “Smallpox and measles, in this period [16th century], wiped out lives in different regions”, he says. And the scenario continued.

Later, in the 17th century, with the bandeirantes entries, “the Tupi-Guarani groups in the Guaíra region were plagued by contamination”, points out the anthropologist. “This continues through the 18th, 19th centuries and goes through the 20th century. In the early 1970s, infant mortality in the first year of life in the Xingu Indigenous Park reached 10%.”

"I remember some cases, for example, occurrences during the construction of the Transamazônica highway, when after contact, in 1981, the indigenous people were slaughtered by an influenza epidemic, causing the collective death and decimation of the groups", adds Tucci Carneiro. "The omission of the State that did not provide assistance must also be accounted for."

Covid-19 is a new and complex challenge, which may be local in scope, in an ethnic group or broader, encompassing socio-territorial complexes and regions.

“The indigenous municipality of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in Amazonas, for example, is currently fighting for the installation of an equipped field hospital that can serve the indigenous population. At the moment, indigenous people are displaced to hospitals in Manaus, a city whose single health system is already collapsing. The pessimistic prediction is that the situation will spread in the face of a lack of action ”, says Pacheco. “Reports by indigenous and indigenist leaders and researchers, different regions, have highlighted that social isolation has been practiced to prevent the virus entering the indigenous territories.”

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