Unless Forced to Act, the Government Would Simply Leave Us to Die

Beset by the Bolsonaro administration's negligence on public healthcare, Indigenous peoples take resistance to the Supreme Court

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

I was born in 1988, alongside Brazil's new Constitution, when the government finally recognized its citizens. It was a legacy gifted to us by the previous generation, but we have been obliged to defend it since the cradle.

We now face our greatest challenge yet. COVID-19 can effectively wipe us out: entire peoples are in danger of disappearing. Brazil's treatment of Indigenous peoples during the pandemic has been especially catastrophic for us. For that reason, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) is taking a drastic measure: we went to the Supreme Court to file a lawsuit against the violation of our constitutional rights because unless forced to act, the government would simply leave us to die.

Brazil's executive branch has shown great aptitude for accusing its adversaries of its own crimes in order to blame others for its failures. One of the symptoms of the novel coronavirus is to make this modus operandi even more evident. As the administration tries to pass the buck to state governors and accuses the judicial branch of meddling with executive powers, civil society is increasingly compelled to turn to the courts to ensure that the Bolsonaro administration fulfills its duties.

We had no option but to seek support in the nation's highest court because, although we keep maintaining social distancing, our lands are being invaded and our rights to healthcare neglected. According to both the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) and the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam), the COVID-19 mortality rate among Indigenous peoples of the Amazon is 150 percent higher than the national average, and at least 30 percent of the analyzed territories face a high risk of COVID-19 spread due to deforestation and the active presence of land invaders and wildcat miners.

This particular constitutional lawsuit is an unusual one, in that it aims to "avoid or repair the damage done to a fundamental principle resulting from actions of the Public Power" [Article 102, Brazilian Constitution of 1988]. The document we presented to the Supreme Court on June 29th is more than 80 pages long, but it is one single request backed by the constitution: that the government fulfills its duty to safeguard our collective safety and health.

The first Indigenous person to die from COVID-19 was Alvanei Xirixana, a 15-year-old Yanomami boy, who was not even a member of a high-risk group. More than 20,000 wildcat miners have invaded Yanomami lands. It's not an exaggeration to say that the Yanomami and the peoples living in voluntary isolation there are in grave danger of disappearing. But we are all extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, including those of us who live in cities.

According to APIB's National Committee for the Indigenous Life and Memory, as of June 27th Brazil had registered 378 deaths, 9,166 infected, and 112 Indigenous groups struck by the virus. With this data in mind, we can verify that the virus's lethality among Indigenous people is 9.6 percent, compared to 5.6 percent for the Brazilian population overall. A study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) shows that 48 percent of hospitalized patients who die are Indigenous. This is the highest death rate in the country, surpassing the pardo, or Brown (40%), Black (36%), Asian (34%), and white (28%) Brazilian populations.

Among the deceased we have been mourning is Paulo Paiakan. He played a key role in securing our constitutional rights, and he was part of the previous generation I mentioned at the beginning of this article, along with other elders in the Indigenous movement, such as Raoni, Mario Juruna, and Aílton Krenak.

The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 was a triumph for civilization and is recognized by most nations as an example to be followed. Hence, it is not only a victory for Indigenous nations, but a birthright of all Brazilians, and therefore it must be protected by us all. Our constitution is not only the best medicine against coronavirus but also for many other maladies lurking in the shadows.

Eloy Terena is Legal Advisor of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB)

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