Already poor, Mexican indigenous people face virus with few defenses

Mexico City (AFP) –


A day after learning he was infected with the coronavirus, an indigenous Mexican farmer named Samuel hanged himself from a tree.

And he remained hanging there for hours because no one had protective gear to bring the body down -- a grim illustration of the plight of Mexico's indigenous peoples, who are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic sweeping the globe because of their grinding poverty.

After the suicide, panic spread through the village of Ocosingo, one of the poorest native communities in Mexico.

Samuel, 54, from the Zoque ethnic group, is believed to have been infected when two of his sons, working in a factory in northern Mexico, came home to impoverished Chiapas state after the plant shut down because of the health crisis.

An official with the Chiapas attorney general's office said the man suffered from depression, which worsened when he learned he was infected.

The rest of Samuel's family is now infected, said Joel Morales, a community leader. And people in that village of 1,400 are terrified because there is only one clinic, with a lone doctor and two nurses.

There is also a lack of face masks, sanitizing gel for people to wash their hands and gloves, he said.

Ocosingo is one of the Mexican municipalities with the highest levels of extreme poverty, affecting 76 percent of the population in 2015, according to a non-governmental monitor called the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy.

Surrounding Chiapas state, which is mainly indigenous, is also Mexico's poorest, with 76.4 percent of its people living in poverty in 2018.

The fact that no one had gear to collect Samuel's body safely is a situation repeated in most of the indigenous areas of Mexico.

A full fifth of the total population of 120 million identifies as indigenous, according to the National Statistics Institute.

- No water for washing hands -

As of Tuesday, 227 indigenous people tested positive for the coronavirus, out of a national tally of 16,700 cases and 1,600 deaths, the government says. It did not say how many indigenous people have died.

Some ethnic groups have taken their own protective measures, such as shutting off access to their territories.

"For now it is the only way to stop contagion in these communities, where there is also a lack of hospitals and medicine," said Adelfo Regino, director of the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples, or INPI in Spanish.

But such measures cause conflict, such as a clash Monday between police and indigenous people protesting a "sanitary cordon" and curfew declared in the Chiapas town of Yajalon, where they usually go to buy supplies. Four indigenous people were injured in the violence.

Besides hunger and unemployment, the 4,000 people of the Mixe community in the towns of San Pedro and San Pablo Ayutla in the southern state of Oaxaca have been struggling with drought for years. Now, with the pandemic, they are supposed to wash their hands frequently.

"It is hard to exercise the human right to health when the human right to water is not guaranteed," said Yasnaya Aguilar, a Mixe linguist.

To broadcast information about the pandemic to indigenous areas, 22 radio stations that are part of the INPI air the message "stay home" in 35 of Mexico's 68 ancestral languages.

- Fear of hunger -

In the San Quintin Valley, a fertile agricultural area in northern Baja California state, indigenous farm workers and their families have to deal not only with workplace exploitation but also unsanitary conditions.

"Some landowners give them face coverings and sanitizing gel, but in other cases at least 10 people drink water from the same glass," said Amalia Tello, a community representative and radio personality in San Quintin.

Like her, many of those workers from the Mixe, Triqui and Zapoteca ethnic groups emigrated north from Oaxaca seeking a better life.

"They are afraid of getting infected, but here they have no choice but to work," said Tello.

In the mountains of Tarahumara, in the northwest state of Chihuahua, bordering the US, the Raramuri people - known as "the runners" because they go barefoot -- fear going hungry because of their isolation.

"Here people are afraid not of the virus but of hunger," said Maria Aurelia Palma, a Raramuri councillor in the village of Guachochi.

As there is little farm work to be had in neighboring states such as Sonora and Sinaloa, these people are hoping government aid arrives soon.

Mexico's leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has said helping the poor is his top priority, has set aside $25.6 billion for social development projects.

"After the pandemic is over, the challenge is to rescue the economy of native peoples. For now it is to save lives," said the INPI's Regino.