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Peru’s Indigenous Are Turning To Ancestral Medicines To Fight The Coronavirus

With news headlines like “How Covid-19 could destroy indigenous communities”, it’s hard to understate the affect that the Coronavirus has had on Indigenous communities across the world.

Even before the pandemic hit, native populations were already at increased risk of health complications, poor access to medical care, lack of proper education, and even premature death. The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues as government programs and NGOs who delivered aid to far flung communities have grind to a halt.

However, many communities have started taking the matter into their own hands by creating their own impromptu healthcare systems based on ancestral techniques and others have barricaded off their villages from the outside world in an effort to stem the flow of the virus.

In Peru, many Indigenous communities are turning to centuries-old medicines to fight back against the Coronavirus.

The Coronavirus has had a devastating impact on Peru – the country with the world’s highest per capita Covid-19 mortality rate. At particular risk is the nation’s large Indigenous community, who often lack proper access to education efforts and medical care. This has forced many Indigenous groups to find their own remedies.

In the Ucayali region, government rapid response teams deployed to a handful of Indigenous communities have found infection rates as high as 80% through antibody testing. Food and medicine donations have reached only a fraction of the population. Many say the only state presence they have seen is from a group responsible for collecting bodies of the dead.

At least one community, the Indigenous Shipibo from Peru’s Amazon region, have decided to rely on the wisdom of their ancestors. With hospitals far away, doctors stretch too thin and a lack of beds, many have accepted the alternative medicine.

In a report by the Associated Press, one villager, Mery Fasabi, speaks about gathering herbs, steeping them in boiling water and instructing her loved ones to breathe in the vapors. She also makes syrups of onion and ginger to help clear congested airways.

“We had knowledge about these plants, but we didn’t know if they’d really help treat COVID,” the teacher told the AP. “With the pandemic we are discovering new things.”

One of the plants the Shipibo are using is known locally as ‘matico.’ The plant has green leaves and brightly colored flowers. And although Fasabi admits that these ancestral remedies are by no means a cure, the holistic approach is proving successful. She says that “We are giving tranquility to our patients,” through words of encouragement and physical touch.

Even before the Coronavirus, Indigenous communities were at a greater risk for infectious diseases.

Indigenous peoples around the globe tend to be at higher risk from emerging infectious diseases compared to other populations. During the H1N1 pandemic in Canada in 2009, for example, aboriginal Canadians made up 16% of admissions to hospital, despite making up 3.4% of the population.

Covid-19 is no exception. In the US, one in every 2,300 indigenous Americans has died, compared to one in 3,600 white Americans.

Indigenous groups are particularly vulnerable to dying from Covid-19 because they often live days away from professional medical help. As of July 28, the disease had killed 1,108 indigenous people and there had been 27,517 recorded cases, with the majority in Brazil, according to data published by Red Eclesial Panamazonia (Repam).

Some communities are turning inward to survive COVID-19, barricading villages and growing their own food.

Despite the immense threat they face, Indigenous communities are fighting back.

“I am amazed to see the ways that indigenous peoples are stepping up to provide support where governments have not,” Tauli-Corpuz, a teacher at Mexico’s UNAM, told The Conversation. “They are providing PPE and sanitation, making their own masks, and ensuring that information on Covid-19 is available in local languages, and are distributing food and other necessities.”

They are also choosing to isolate. In Ecuador’s Siekopai nation, about 45 Indigenous elders, adults and children traveled deep into the forest to their ancestral heartland of Lagartococha to escape exposure to the Coronavirus, says the nation’s president Justino Piaguaje.

Despite their best efforts, many experts are extremely concerned for the survival of many Indigenous communities.

Credit: Ginebra Peña / Amazonian Alliance

They are already facing the ‘tipping point’ of ecological collapse due to increased threats of deforestation, fires, industrial extraction, agribusiness expansion and climate change,” Amazon Watch executive director Leila Salazar-Lopez told UNESCO of Amazonian Indigenous groups.

“Now, the pandemic has created one more crisis, and as each day passes, the risk of ethnocide becomes more real.”

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