May 5, 2020 / 4:38 PM / a month ago

Ecuador indigenous community fears extinction from COVID-19

QUITO (Reuters) - One of Ecuador’s indigenous communities fears it could be wiped out as coronavirus infections rise in its territory, prompting dozens of its members to flee into the Amazon rainforest for shelter from the pandemic which has killed nearly 1,600 in the country.

A member of the Siekopai nation of Bella Vista Community sits down in a chair as he is being tested for antibodies of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the territories of the Siekopai nation in Sucumbios, Ecuador, April 29, 2020 in this handout photo. Amazon Frontiles y Alianza Ceibo/Handout via REUTERS.

The Siekopai nation along the border between Ecuador and Peru, with some 744 members, has 15 confirmed cases of the virus and two elderly leaders died in the last two weeks after showing symptoms of COVID-19, the group said.

A large number of Siekopai have presented symptoms related to the outbreak but, after they sought help from a government health centre in nearby Tarapoa city, doctors told them they just had a “nasty flu,” community President Justino Piaguaje said.

When the first of the elderly died in mid-April, Siekopai leaders urged Ecuador’s government to fence off the community and test the inhabitants but have received no response, he said.

    “There are barely 700 of us. In the past we were victims of this type of disease and today we don’t want history to be repeated,” Piaguaje said in a meeting held via social media on Monday.

“We don’t want our people saying that there were 700 of us and now there are 100. What a scandal it would be for the Ecuadorian government to leave us with such a sad story in the 21st century,” he added.

    Fearful of the coronavirus, dozens of children and elderly Siekopai fled in canoes to Lagartococha, one of Ecuador’s largest wetlands in the heart of the jungle, to avoid infection.

Siekopai who stayed behind in their territory in Ecuador’s Sucumbios province are turning to homeopathic medicines to cope with respiratory problems, said Piaguaje.

Other indigenous groups in Ecuador’s Amazon also have confirmed coronavirus cases, according to indigenous organization CONFENIAE. Ecuador has reported more than 30,000 cases.

In neighbouring Peru, indigenous groups submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations in late April, saying the government had left them to fend for themselves against the coronavirus, risking “ethnocide by inaction.”

Human rights organizations working in Ecuador’s Amazonian regions say the health ministry is neglecting communities like the Siekopai, who have yet to receive tests or medical supplies despite their vulnerability.

    “They are in serious risk of being physically and culturally wiped out by the spread of COVID-19 in their territory,” said Maria Espinosa, a human rights defender with the group Amazon Frontlines.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Oliver Griffin in Bogota; Editing by Richard Chang

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