Six weeks after the emergency declaration with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in Peru, and despite demands and proposals from local, regional and national indigenous leaders and their national and international allies and from warnings from the Ombudsman, there is still no national plan or guidelines for defending indigenous communities.
Although the Ministry of Culture (Mincul) this week began distributing food and protective gear to communities in the Madre de Dios and Ucayali regions with appropriate protocols, in the Loreto region the mayor of the Trompeteros municipality was distributing food to communities along the Corrientes River with four of his team infected by the coronavirus.
As previous issues of this newsletter have explained, the spread of the coronavirus pandemic to South America immediately raised red flags because of the historical vulnerability of Amazonian indigenous peoples, some of them in voluntary isolation from the outside world, to infectious diseases. As the government introduced a nationwide obligatory lockdown and introduced a series of economic measures to alleviate the impacts on business and the urban population, indigenous leaders and their allies demanded measures and guidelines that would take into consideration the peculiar vulnerabilities and cultural differences of indigenous peoples.
The response from Mincul has been slow and tardy. As late as 24 April, the vice-minister for interculturality announced that the ministry was still negotiating with other government agencies and formulating protocols and guidelines. Meanwhile, indigenous communities were taking matters into their own hands, isolating their communities by prohibiting the entrance or exit of outsiders, including local and regional government officials and members of the police and armed forces, generating conflicts in some areas. At the same time, they demanded access to food parcels and protective equipment and, together with their allies, developed detailed proposals for public policies.
In the face of the lack of any clear guidelines for treating indigenous communities from the national authorities, municipalities began distributing food parcels without any health or cultural protocols, leading the Ombudsman to demand that Mincul take the lead in developing a national plan to prevent the spread of the pandemic through the Amazonian communities.
Apparently despairing of any possibility of reaching an agreement with other ministries, on 29 April Mincul announced that it was beginning to distribute kits with basic foodstuffs and protective gear (masks, soap and detergents) amongst communities in the Madre de Dios and Ucayali regions, in coordination with local and regional indigenous leaders and following strict protocols.
Unfortunately, this may have been too little and too late. The same day that the ministry announced its initiative, it was revealed that on 23 April the mayor of Trompeteros municipality, unencumbered by masks, gloves or any other protective clothing and accompanied by the municipal doctor and the crew, had set sail along the Corrientes River to distribute food parcels like an Amazonian Santa Claus to indigenous communities on the way.
When they reached the eighteenth community, Pucacuro, the medical personnel in the local health centre noticed that four crew members showed clear symptoms of a coronavirus infection and alerted the regional authorities. The infected crew members were evacuated to the hospital in Iquitos where molecular tests confirmed the clinical diagnosis made in the community. On 30 April an Achuar woman in the Pucacuro community was reported as presenting symptoms of the virus and had been placed in isolation.
This variant on García Márquez’s novel – ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ – illustrates the weakness of the Peruvian state, in particular the lack of coordination both between ministries and state sectors and between different levels of government. A pandemic like the present one not only serves to highlight long-existing problems but also to illustrate the potentially tragic consequences.