Brazilian Indigenous leaders warn Evangelicals are undermining vaccination efforts

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Following a dangerous gap in distribution, recent weeks have seen a successful rise in doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered to Indigenous communities in North and South America. Many communities are still wary of vaccination, however, and in Brazil, that fear is being fueled by evangelical missionaries.

First, the good news: the CBC reports that over 8,000 Indigenous people have been vaccinated in northern Ontario. As part of the program “Operation Remote Immunity,” mobile teams of health workers fly to remote communities and offer culturally competent education and vaccination programs. The program aims to overcome the hesitancy experienced by Indigenous communities to engage in the healthcare system because of mistreatment and colonialism. “This is hesitancy that’s been created,” said one phyiscian, Dr. Lisa Richardson, “because of a healthcare system that has deliberately, in many cases, excluded Indigenous people.”

“This project provides accessible resources that are grounded in Indigenous histories, cultures, and worldviews,” said Caroline Lidstone-Jones, CEO of the Indigenous Primary Health Care Council. “By sharing traditional knowledges and healing practices along with western, scientific information about vaccines, these resources provide information to enable and empower people to make informed decisions about their own health and wellbeing.”

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The first priority for vaccination is going to Indigenous adults in elder care homes and in remote and high-risk communities, according to the Ontario provincial health ministry. The next priority will include all Indigenous adults.

“Work to make vaccinations available to all residents in high-risk retirement and First Nations elder care homes is well underway and nearing completion,” the ministry stated. “Public health units have been working closely with First Nations to ensure it is being done in a way that is appropriate for the communities and homes.”

PBS News Hour also reported on efforts to bring the vaccine to Indigenous communities in the United States, one of the minority communities bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Moderna coronavirus vaccine has become available to Indigenous communities in an effort run by the Native American Community Clinic. “Although Native lands are predominantly in very remote settings,” reports PBS’s Fred de Sam Lazaro, “the majority of Native peoples in the United States actually lives in cities.” His reporting covers a south Minneapolis neighborhood with one of the nation’s densest populations of Native people, where officials are working to vaccinate the elderly.

Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, experiencing highest death rate from COVID-19 – almost twice that of white Americans, according to PBS.

“We recognize, as Native physicians, the degree of distrust in our communities,” says Dr. Mary Owen, president of the Association of American Indian Physicians. “And we recognize the reasons for them, most of us having lived in and continuing to work in our communities.

“However,” Owen continued, “it is so important that people recognize that we are dying at much higher numbers, and the government is actually getting this one right by getting us the vaccine, as they should be. So, in order to continue to protect our communities that are dying, our community members who are dying at disproportionate amounts, we have to take this vaccine up.”

NPR reported success elsewhere in the United States through the Indian Health Service (IHS), an operating division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for providing advocacy, education and direct medical and public health services to members of federally recognized Native American Tribes and Alaska Native people.

While the IHS has been a continually under-funded and imperfect system, the division has recently ramped up vaccination operations. “On the Navajo Nation, nearly 21,000 members have been fully vaccinated since doses were released in mid-December, and more than 100,000 Navajo have at least had one shot, said President Jonathan Nez,” NPR reported. The IHS is holding mass vaccination clinics in various tribal nations, including the White Mountain Apache and the Cherokee Nation.

The federal Indian Health Service said last week that it has administered nearly 385,300 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, at a rate of about 18,500 per 100,000. Some 90,000 doses have been administered in the Navajo area.

The news is less good in parts of Latin America. Jose Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, coordinator of the Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon and a member of the Wakuenai Kurripaco people of Venezuela, described the situation in Latin America as a “health emergency” with an urgent need for vaccines.

According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Indigenous communities in Latin America face a high risk of infection and death from coronavirus because of malnutrition, lack of consistent safe drinking water, and basic health services.

“We want the vaccination plan for indigenous peoples to be based on prior and informed consultation,” Mirabal told Reuters earlier this month. That plan, he said, should include culturally competent delivery of health information in native languages.

The Colombian government said that it was prioritizing vaccine distributions to Indigenous communities for healthcare workers and individuals over 80. But the rollout of the plan begins next month to Colombia’s 2 million Indigenous citizens along with personal protective equipment.

Brazil is a hot-spot, however, and faces similar challenges – plus some troubling additional problems. In the heart of the Amazon, communities are experiencing the Brazil variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The variant has exploded in places like Manaus, deep in the Amazon, where it accounts for about 75% of infections.

Brazil’s 800,000 Indigenous members share the same challenges as other Indigenous communities and should a priority for national immunization. Medical teams are responding slowly.

Those medical teams are also encountering significant resistance, sometimes with violence. Evangelical missionaries are sabotaging the efforts of medical teams to provide vaccinations.

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Dinamam Tuxá, coordinator of the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) and legal adviser to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo (APOINME), clearly pointed the finger at Evangelicals for problems with vaccine distribution. “Religious fundamentalists and Evangelical missionaries are preaching against the vaccine,” he said.

Claudemir da Silva, an Apurinã leader representing Indigenous communities on the Purus River, told Reuters, “It’s not happening in all villages, just in those that have missionaries or evangelical chapels where pastors are convincing the people not to receive the vaccine, that they will turn into an alligator and other crazy ideas.”

Some Evangelical leaders confirmed these practices. “Unfortunately, some pastors who lack wisdom are spreading misinformation to our Indigenous brethren,” said Pastor Mario Jorge Conceição of the Assembly of God Traditional Church in Manaus to Reuters.

Paulo Marubo told Amazonia Real that a team of the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai), an agency linked to the Ministry of Health, which operates in the region, remains in contact with Indigenous leaders, trying to convince him of the benefits of vaccination. But this task is difficult given the permanent influence exerted by missionaries in the villages. “We will pass this information on to them. And to say that we are also taking it, so they won’t be afraid. Missionaries are misinforming.”

Even president Jair Bolsonaro has said, “If you take the vaccine and turn into an alligator, it’s your problem. If you turn into Superman or women grow beards, I have nothing to do with that.” But even in rejecting the misinformation, he confirmed its existence.

Missionary misinformation is now an additional challenge on top of a variant, poorly funded healthcare, limited resources, and colonialism that is costing even more lives.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic,” Tuxá tweeted today, “since the first Indigenous life we lost to COVID-19, we have warned you: these are not numbers, they are lives! Relative when your turn comes, get vaccinated! For you, for your community and for the 305 Indigenous peoples of Brazil.”