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  • The president of the Siekopai Nation, Justino Piaguaje, Monday after the press conference.

    The president of the Siekopai Nation, Justino Piaguaje, Monday after the press conference. | Photo: Siekopai Nation

Published 4 May 2020

Fears are growing that the epidemic will wreak havoc across the country's Amazon.

Ecuador’s authorities have abandoned the country’s Amazon Indigenous people to their fate in the face of the new coronavirus pandemic, the president of the Siekopai (Secoya) Original Nation, Justino Piaguaje, said Monday at a virtual news conference.

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People from the Siekopai Nation of the Ecuadorian northern Amazon are enduring “very difficult, and very complicated moments” Piaguaje told reporters, as the South American country is one of the most affected by COVID-19 in the continent.

Now fears are growing that the epidemic will wreak havoc across the Amazon.

When some members of the Siekopai communities started showing symptoms similar to those of the coronavirus in mid-April, they were immediately taken to local medical centers, where they were told that it was “just the flu,” Piaguaje said. 

Two elders have died. It was not confirmed that their deaths were due to the pandemic but the two victims presented all the symptoms of the coronavirus infection, the president denounced.

After one of the elders passed away from respiratory complications, a COVID-19 test was performed on one of his relatives who tested positive. But despite constant requests for more tests to be carried out in the communities, no responses were received.

Members of the Siekopai Nation in ancestral Siekopai territory, Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo: Amazon Frontlines / Alianza Ceibo

Some tests were carried out however during the second half of April and 14 people tested positive for the disease.

It took more than 15 days to the Ministry of Health to recognize the first positive case, Piaguaje said, lamenting that authorities did not take the members of the communities seriously when they first went to the medical centers presenting symptoms.

“They said it was just simple flu. They did not even bother to check using the quick tests.”

Speaking on behalf of all the Indigenous communities comprising the Siekopai nation, the leader urged the Ecuadorean state to be clear and to say how many tests it has and how many of these tests it will provide to the nation so that they can determine how many of their members are infected.  

The Siekopai nation has only 700 members and 40 percent of its population is above 45 years old. Its leader recalled that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has declared that indigenous peoples need special attention in the face of the epidemic.

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"We don't want our community members to say ‘we were 700 and now we're 100.’ What a shame in the 21st century," the president expressed urging the state to provide urgent answers, though he insisted that peoples in the Amazon must also -as they have always done- rely on themselves and their traditional medicine. Hence the importance of the preservation of the rainforest and the wisdom of its peoples, he concluded.

"The only thing we have applied until now is traditional medicine, thanks to the knowledge of our elders."

This situation of the Siekopai nation is not an exception across the Amazon. The majority of the indigenous communities are currently suffering the same fate according to the director of communications for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) in Ecuador, Andres Tapia.

Cases were reported in other Nations, including the Shuar and the Ashuar among others, Tapia said, adding that CONFENIAE has been for weeks calling upon the State to assume its responsibilities towards peoples in the Amazon.

As these requests remained unanswered, the organization had to resort to its own resources. It has for example taken on the task to translate information and safety protocols in native languages. 

President of the Siekopai Nation Justino Piaguaje (in the center) with Siekopai leaders in Lagartococha (Pëkë'ya), on the Amazon on the border between Peru and Ecuador. Photo Amazon Frontlines / Alianza Ceibo

The response of the state in the face of such a threat has to be profound and urgent, in order to prevent a possible risk of extinction, NGO Amazon Frontlines said last month in a press release.

“Throughout the continent persist conditions of inequality, poverty, exclusion, historical discrimination, and lack of adequate consultation of Indigenous peoples (...) These factors, combined with specific vulnerabilities that affect some Indigenous peoples, such as respiratory disorders and lack of immunological defenses against relatively common diseases, add to the risk factors already established by COVID 19 and make this pandemic a serious threat to the survival not only of some people but entire groups of peoples,” the NGO had warned.

The growing fear in the Amazon from the spread of the pandemic takes on a particular meaning when linked to history. An estimated 90 percent of the original inhabitants of the continent died because of diseases Europeans brought with them during colonization. Indigenous people today survived one of the worst genocide in history and have not forgotten about it.

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