The coronavirus pandemic is now penetrating the Peruvian Amazon and the latest hotspot is in the San Martín region amongst the communities of the Awajún indigenous nation where several elders and historic leaders, amongst them Santiago Manuin, hero of the so-called ‘Baguazo’, the teacher and communicator Hernán Kinin and his brother and long-standing leader Arturo have all passed away.

On 1 July, when the latest extension of the pandemic emergency in Peru began, Santiago Manuin, historic leader of the Manuin people, died from Covid-19 in the Luis Heysen Incháustegui hospital in Chiclayo, after two other hospitals (in Santa María de Nieva and Bagua) were unable to attend him. He was 63 years old.

Manuin was a moral guide and historic leader of his people who played a leading role in the protests against the García government’s attempt to undermine Amazonian indigenous rights in 2009. In the area known as the Devil’s Curve, near Bagua (Amazonas), Manuin attempted to prevent a surprise attack by government security forces and received eight bullets for his efforts. 33 persons (23 police and ten indigenous) died in the conflict. Manuin survived miraculously but confined to a wheelchair from which he decorated Pope Francis during his visit to Peru in 2019. After a trial which lasted until September 2016, Manuin and the other indigenous were absolved.

In 1994 Manuin received the Queen Sofía prize in recognition for his work in defence of the Amazon and human rights, and in 2014 he was awarded the National Human Rights Prize for a life of service in defence of the Amazonian peoples and the conservation of the forest. His death, together with the deaths of other Awajún elders and leaders, represents a serious blow to the Awajún people as they confront the advance of the virus with scant help from the state. Medical infrastructure is precarious or non-existent, while medical professionals and medicines are lacking.

On 6 June, state authorities called on the inhabitants of the Awajun communities to come to the nearest towns to receive cash payments and hand-outs from state social programmes. The social agglomeration and interaction with people from outside their communities meant that many returned not just with their benefits but also the virus.

By the end of the month, five indigenous had died in the Huampami and Kusu Kubaim communities and four of the eight medical professionals in the Huampami health centre were infected. The Amazonian Observatory of San Marcos University reported that in the Bagua and Condorcanqui districts there had been 17 deaths from the virus and 153 infections confirmed by tests and 599 people with symptoms.

To illustrate the situation, the Observatory presented the following hypothetical example:

  • If a person who lives in the El Cenepa district in Condorcanqui, is infected by Covid-19, he or she should receive treatment in the Micro Network in Huampami that has collapsed, lacks medicines and currently is only attended by two nurses because over half the personnel is infected.
  • If their situation worsens, they would have to travel three hours by river to the Santa María de Nieva hospital which has also collapsed, lacks medicines, has no intensive care units, and has half its professionals also infected.
  • If their condition worsens even further and they require admission to hospital, they would need to travel another six hours to the Gustavo Lanatta hospital in Bagua Chica, also collapsed, without medicines and with no beds available in the intensive care unit.

The regional indigenous organization ORPIAN P has threatened to close down two of Petroperu’s oil pumping stations to attract government attention to their plight and for it to send emergency help. Genoveva Gómez, the national Ombudsman’s representative in the region, has called on the Amazonas regional government to send medical personnel, strengthen the health centres, and adopt specific and differentiated responses in coordination with the ministries of health and culture and indigenous organisations.

Finally, the national indigenous women’s organization ONAMIAP with support from Earth Rights International has presented a law suit against the ministries of culture, health, education, economy and finance, development and social inclusion and the prime minister’s office for violating and placing at risk the right to life, integrity, health, ethnic identity, education, equality, self-determination and participation of the country’s indigenous peoples.