Indigenous youth open up about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their communities

Young indigenous people from different parts of Brazil share how they have engaged to protect and bring information to their communities

um grupo de jovens indígenas está em pé, usando máscaras. Na frente deles, várias cestas básicas e com itens de higiene
Arquivo Pessoal – Emerson Pataxó
16 July 2020

The novel coronavirus pandemic aggravated pre-existing inequalities in Brazil and increased their negative impact on the most vulnerable people. Various indigenous populations, for instance, began to face new challenges. During a live-stream video chat organized by UNICEF, themed “Indigenous youth in the context of COVID-19”, young members of indigenous groups from all over Brazil expressed their concerns and talked about how the pandemic has affected their communities.

In their testimonies, these young indigenous people’s biggest worry becomes clear: losing their elders. Since older persons are more likely to develop a more severe form of COVID-19, many tribe leaders fell victim to the disease. “Our elders are our books. They teach us everything. We need time with our elders”, explains the young Kanynari Apurinã. He is a member of the apurinã people, from the town of Lábrea, in the Amazonas State (Amazon Rainforest region) and a collaborator to the project “Vozes do Purus” (Purus Voices), which aims at keeping apurinã traditions alive through audiovisual productions.

“This pandemic reminded us of the importance of forming new leaders - with new elders - because we felt the impact of COVID-19 through the loss of our leadership”, Rayanne Cristine says sadly. Rayanne is a member of the bare people, from Amazonas State. She is part of the Rede de Juventude Indígena (Indigenous Youth Network) and collaborates to the work of the Regional Indigenous Platform in tackling the COVID-19 in Latin America.

The crucial role of communication
These young people identified that the loss of their leaders also happened due to lack of information about the COVID-19 disease. This is why many of them have been dedicated to the creation of informative content in indigenous languages to help their communities, but also to call attention to the severe impacts of coronavirus on indigenous populations.

"Besides caring for the elders, we work to raise awareness, so that people do not leave the community territory," says Kanynary. In his opinion, the access to information about the coronavirus and preventive measures is one of the greatest challenges that indigenous people face.

Often, aside from poor internet connection, information is not available in indigenous languages, only in Portuguese. “We need to understand the technical words and translate them in a way that is easy for our community members to understand. This is a big concern because sometimes we try to explain something [regarding the pandemic] but the translated message comes out different from the original information. So, we must receive the information, translate it accurately and pass it on”.

With the same objective in mind, Daniela Patricia, a young Tukano, from São Gabriel da Cachoeira town, in the Upper Rio Negro Indigenous Territory, State of Amazonas, joined the Rede de Jovens Comunicadores do Alto Rio Negro (Network of Young Communicators from the Upper Rio Negro) (Rede Wayuri). The Network produces and broadcasts podcast episodes in indigenous languages ​​through WhatsApp, and creates a written bulletin that is circulated to the town residents.

Before the pandemic, the communication channels already worked and brought news about spots in universities, politics and other local topics that directly affect indigenous peoples. After the pandemic outbreak in the region, relevant information about the new coronavirus was included to the agenda. “The radio has been very important for communities without access to the internet, it is a communication to inform young people in these communities of everything that is happening out here”, she says.

In Bahia, Emerson Pataxó, a resident of Aldeia Cura Vermelha (indigenous people village), in the town of Santa Cruz Cabrália, also acts as an indigenous communicator for Mídia India. During the pandemic, the group created the website, which gathers pieces of news about the COVID-19 disease in indigenous communities across Brazil and case data, in addition to a dedicated fundraise initiative to tackle the virus in affected indigenous areas. With the funds raised, they provide food and hygiene products to these communities.

“The website was an achievement, because traditional media do not bring enough information to understand the impact [of the pandemic] on our communities. We included the data that the mainstream media does not cover, we gathered this information with State Health Secretariats and Sesai [Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health], and we managed to build a platform that can be accessed by anyone”, he says.

Impact felt in Urban Areas
Indigenous people living in cities face a different set of difficulties. Sâmela, a member of the sateré mawé indigenous group, studies Biology at the University of Manaus and is a member of the Associação Indígena Sateré Mawé (Sateré Mawé Indigenous Association). She has worked to draw attention to the indigenous people living in big cities during the pandemic and the challenges that they have faced to adapt in light of current circumstances.

When the social isolation measures were first implemented, she and other indigenous people living in urban areas, whose livelihood depended on the handicraft they produced and sold, were left without any source of income. With stores closed and retail activity temporarily shut down, they had no means to survive.

Luckily, they were presented with an opportunity to start making fabric facemasks. “We had never sewn before, but we accepted the challenge. At first, the masks were intended to protect people in our community. We were donated a sewing machine and started sewing immediately. After making a mask for everyone in our community, I posted a picture on social media and people began to contact me, ordering masks”, she recalls, happily.

Altogether 8,000 facemasks have been produced and, with the help from supporters, they were sent to indigenous communities in several municipalities in the State of Amazonas, or donated by the Association to indigenous people living in urban areas. “We didn’t abandon our handicraft work, we combined handicraft and face masks, using social media as a great ally to promote our work”, she celebrates.

>> Watch the full video here.