Facing the COVID-19 pandemic with Amazonian indigenous communities
In the last two years worldwide, we experienced complex moments with confinement and social distancing. There was huge distress due to economic instability and, above all, uncertainty due to the consequences of an unknown disease. The Department of Vaupés, in the Colombian Amazon region, was no exception. In less than six months the COVID-19 virus had disseminated from Wuhan in China to Bocas de Ugá, an indigenous community on the Apaporis River, showing that despite feeling that the Amazon jungle is a remote and isolated place, it is actually interconnected with the rest of the world. In fact, at that time, the Pan-Amazon region had one of the highest incidence and mortality rates for COVID-19 in Colombia and the world.
The uncertainty in the territory was aggravated due to the lack of reliable and culturally appropriate information. Prevention measures included the use of face masks to avoid infection, but the messages were useless due to the impossibility of obtaining personal protective equipment in most communities, and even in the urban centers of the region, both due to shortages and lack of economic resources to buy them.
In this scenario, indigenous women played a fundamental role. In addition to ensuring basic food and care for the sick, in Mitú, the capital of the Department of Vaupés, a group of indigenous women from the Fundación Casa de la Mujer del Vaupés (FUCAMUVA) organized to make cloth face masks and gowns for health personnel and members of the indigenous communities. Through Sinergias Alianzas Estratégicas para la Salud y el Desarrollo Social, a Colombian NGO that has worked in the Amazon region during the last 10 years, a cooperation process was established under which supplies were donated and an economic remuneration was agreed for the manufacture of face masks and gowns. This process helped the women to strengthen their organization and administrative processes while generating income for their families at one of the most complex moments of the pandemic. The process also ensured the availability of these items in many Amazonian communities. Yolanda Estrada, Representative of FUCAMUVA, said:
«In these difficult times we want to show the rest of the country that we, as women of Vaupés, also know many things, we are weavers, dreamers, workers, responsible and accomplished women.»
Erika Danetsuta, one of the eight members of the micro-enterprise, speaks of the personal and collective satisfaction of their work: «We feel very happy because we were able to support ourselves economically while benefiting indigenous people from our Amazon region with the production of the face masks».
This group of women and similar groups from two other Departments made nearly 20,000 masks that, together with soaps, disinfectants and culturally appropriate educational material, were distributed through indigenous organizations in prioritized regions of the six Departments of the Amazon region of Colombia, as well as in some educational centers. We highlight an experience, in which the delivery of the masks was made, among others, through a network of community health managers from 23 communities who were trained through a Sinergias’ project where they also collected data on the health situation, COVID-19 and other priority diseases, contributing to the prevention and containment response to this disease.
The data collected allowed us to have a clearer picture of the real situation of the pandemic among indigenous peoples, helping us to understand the functioning of the networks within the communities and the behavior of the virus in this context. Also, information was collected that helped identify a great diversity of traditional medicine resources and ancestral knowledge to prevent and treat COVID-19, ranging from prayers and protections, to the use of different medicinal plants. This information served as input for the construction of the intercultural radio programs of El Canto del Tucán, aimed at improving prevention, care and epidemiological surveillance of COVID-19 cases in indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon.
The development of these processes helped many communities to access personal protection elements and adequate edu-communicative material for Amazonian contexts, and to participate in strategies to strengthen organizational capacities and community health surveillance. These interventions helped to mitigate the effects of the pandemic in large territories and to highlight the value of traditional indigenous medicine, in coordination with biomedical medicine, in this context of great population dispersion with severe difficulties to access health services.
This work yielded crucial lessons for the management of diseases and epidemics present in the territory, as well as for the preparation of responses to future similar situations, actively involving local populations, especially positioning the role of women, communities and local organizations.
María Camila Rodriguez, Adelia Prada, Daniela Rangel, María José Montoya and Pablo Montoya from Sinergias Alianzas Estratégicas para la Salud y el Desarrollo Social, a Colombian NGO founded in 2011 that aims to promote a holistic vision of health and development by means of strengthening local capacities, knowledge, and experiences, as well as by impacting public health and social development policies. Pablo Montoya participated in the Seminar “The indigenous peoples of the Amazon in the face of COVID19: Vulnerability and resilience”, co-organized by the Association for the Study of Human Ecology and the Museum of America (Madrid, Spain) in December 2021.