Inequities in care, misinformation fuel COVID deaths among poor, indigenous Brazilians

Simon Ostrovsky:

Sonia Guajajara is not only a leader in her territory in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhao; she’s also a nationally recognized figure who, in 2018, ran for vice president of Brazil on a far left ticket that challenged eventual winner Jair Bolsonaro.

Now she serves as one of the executive coordinators of a national organization dedicated to indigenous rights and health. In mid-April, when Sonia invited us to visit, she and others in her tribe had already been vaccinated. And yet, months earlier, many indigenous friends and relatives had been infected and died.

According to data collected by Guajajara’s group, since the beginning of the pandemic more than 54,500 indigenous people have been infected and more than 1,080 indigenous have died, including dozens of elders. That’s a massive toll for a countrywide population of roughly 800,000.

It’s a death rate six times higher than that of the rest of Brazil. While Guajajara said her people’s communal way of living and immunological vulnerabilities contributed to the high rate of infection, she mostly attributes the large number of COVID deaths to President Bolsonaro’s harsh views on indigenous, which he expressed even as a candidate.

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