By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Jan 26 (Openly) - Indigenous leaders in the Amazon rainforest urged governments on Tuesday to ensure vaccine rollouts reach all tribal communities as a devastating new wave of COVID-19 overwhelms the region's health systems.
Jose Gregorio Diaz, who heads the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA), said his people faced a "health emergency" and urgently need vaccines.
"We're concerned that the indigenous peoples that make up the entire Amazon basin are not included in vaccination plans," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of a webinar organised by COICA.
More than 1.7 million coronavirus cases among indigenous people living in the Amazon basin have been registered, along with 42,000 deaths since the pandemic began, according to COICA.
While Brazil has included indigenous communities in its vaccine rollout that started this month, other countries do not have immunization plans that specifically include and address the needs of tribal people, Diaz said.
In Colombia, which is home to about 2 million indigenous people, the government has said it would prioritise vaccinating healthcare workers and people over the age of 80 as it begins to roll out vaccines next month.
Indigenous leaders told the virtual meeting they have been left to fend for themselves, and that COVID-19 tests, basic protective equipment and healthcare are not reaching their remote forest communities.
"We want the vaccination plan for indigenous peoples to be based on prior and informed consultation," said Diaz, adding that tribal leaders have contacted government officials to collaborate on rolling out the vaccine.
Health prevention and vaccination campaigns should also include native languages, he said.
Indigenous groups face a high risk of infection and death from the coronavirus due to malnutrition and a lack of drinking water and basic health services, according to the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
Tribal groups in Brazil's Amazon have been hit particularly hard and have registered about 750 COVID-19 deaths so far, said indigenous leader Francinara Soares, who heads COIAB, the largest umbrella organization representing Brazil's Amazon indigenous tribes.
A variant of the coronavirus has spiked the rate of new infections in Manaus, an isolated rainforest city home to roughly 30,000 indigenous people, where hospitals are overflowing and oxygen supplies are running low, she explained.
"We are living a war against COVID. It's a war against an invisible enemy, a war against time ... we don't want to see any more people pass away," Soares said.
"We hope to get enough oxygen. We hope to get vaccine for 100% of the indigenous population."
Last week the Amazonas state government gave its first COVID-19 vaccine shot to an indigenous nurse, saying it would prioritise vaccinating frontline health workers and indigenous people in reservations, according to a statement.
Tackling fake news and misinformation spread by evangelical pastors who say vaccines are unsafe and unnecessary poses another challenge, said Soares.
"Evangelists aren't vaccinating ... Some evangelical pastors are saying that the vaccine is not good," she said.
"We're telling our indigenous friends that we need to get vaccinated."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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