A young man carries an elder on his back through the jungle

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February 1, 2021

Indigenous Advocacy Leads to Early Vaccination in Remote Territories

By John Reid, Senior Economist and Partnership Lead, Nia Tero

Brazil has drawn attention for the collapse of the Manaus’ hospitals, overwhelmed by waves of COVID-19, and for the plague denial and anti-Indigenous posture of the country’s president. In a recent analysis of 98 countries’ response to the pandemic, Brazil ranked last (with the similarly miserable U.S. in the 94 position). Amid all the bad pandemic news there are bright spots. One is the fast pace of vaccination of Indigenous people in some of the remotest parts of the Brazilian Amazon.

On January 18 Vanda Ortega Witoto, an Indigenous health technician in Manaus was the first person vaccinated in the state of Amazonas. The following day, vaccinations began in the Javarí territory where Nia Tero supports the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javarí Valley. By the end of January, the vast majority of the Javarí’s people had received their first dose of the vaccine despite being spread among scores of villages in roadless forest the size of Austria. By mid-February, the vaccine teams are expected to reach the most remote inhabitants of the territory, including a group of Korubo people initially contacted in 2019 who are still in only intermittent communication with the people outside their village.

Similar stories played out in other parts of the Brazilian Amazon, including the remote forests of the northeast Amazon where Nia Tero supports the Z’oé people and the diverse peoples of the Tumucumaque and Paru D’este Indigenous Territories. The Zo’é, a tribe first contacted 30 years ago, still lives very traditionally in near isolation. They received their first doses without suffering a single case of the disease. In the other territories, COVID hit hard. Vaccines have arrived just as fears grow that new variants of the disease of the disease may make previously infected people more susceptible to a second bout of the illness.

The rapid vaccination of some of Brazil’s most vulnerable people shows a different side of this society from dire stuff that often makes headlines. It’s a testament to the success of Indigenous leaders raising their voices to highlight the toll the pandemic has been taking on native populations. As Brazil set priorities for the order in which people would receive the shots, Indigenous villages were placed in the most urgent group. Leaders have been fighting to extend this priority of Indigenous peoples in cities, some of the hardest hit groups due to the difficulty of isolation. The vaccination of Indigenous population also showcases the competence and collaboration of Indigenous organizations, health workers and the Brazilian Air Force, all veterans of past vaccination campaigns across the vast, wild rainforests of the Amazon.