For the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, COVID-19 is a radical threat, one which strikes at their worldview and mirrors the violence of predatory invaders.
In quarantine in Rio de Janeiro, I find that my thoughts are often transported to Amazonia and those who live there. Above all, I fear the virus reaching Indigenous villages, which is likely given the authorities’ disregard for Indigenous peoples and the president’s disregard for the virus itself. As of publication, the Instituto Socioambiental has already reported 23 cases of Indigenous patients testing positive.
If the virus is not checked by efforts to control outsider contact with the villages, the scope of the tragedy will be unimaginable. Indigenous social relations are unthinkable without physical proximity, the sharing of food, and daily care of others. Even acts of affection, which they see as integral in the community, are warped by the virus, becoming vectors of sickness and death.
When the Wari’, an Indigenous group in the southwestern Amazon, were contacted between 1956 and 1962, outsiders brought disease, and the resulting epidemics were devastating. Flu, pneumonia, intestinal parasites, and a variety of infections felled over half of the population. These were unknown maladies, for which the shamans had no cure.
The surrounding sound, survivors told me, was of unbroken coughing, punctuated by distant moans. To make matters worse, they had almost no food. They had been driven away from their farmland by rubber plantation owners and hired thugs, who had been invading villages for decades and killing everyone in sight, sometimes with machine guns. Those who managed to flee were forced to reckon with the pain of leaving their dead to be eaten by vultures. It is unspeakably devastating not to be able to give decent funeral to a relative. Today, nearly a century later, our televisions show a mirrored scene on a near-daily basis: coffins piled onto trucks and buried with no relatives to bear witness. The Wari’ are all too familiar with Italians’ pain.
Survivors associated those murdered at gunpoint to the prey of a hunter. The predators didn’t see them as humans; “we were like peccaries,” they used to tell me. But the new diseases couldn’t be seen in the same light, since they were not acts of explicit predation. With no knowledge or framework to understand viruses, protozoans, or bacteria, small living or semi-living creatures that act of their own accord, they could not understand why their own were weakening and dying. They simply referred to the blight as “the great white man’s disease” and tried to stay alive by fleeing deeper into the forest. They do not conceive of disease as something to be confronted, but rather avoided; one must stay far away. The result was that they could not be reached by the antibiotics that the disease-bearers tried in vain to inject them with, and the epidemic spread even farther.
At the peak of the outbreak, they tended to the ill as long as they had the strength for it; resting sick people’s heads in their laps, massaging their bodies, caressing their hair, talking to them constantly. As they see it, only this sort of care, along with shamanic treatment—or, nowadays, allopathic medicine—can hope to cure a victim. A sick person who is left alone and uncared-for will be taken all the more quickly to the realm of the dead; if the living fail to care for their own, the dead will be angered and come to fetch them.
Even today, after 60 years of experience with these exogenous diseases and after being advised ad nauseam by doctors and nurses—especially in regard to tuberculosis, which remains endemic in the area—they cannot understand, or cannot stand, the idea of “social distancing” as prophylaxis. What’s more, it would be useless; according to their socio-physiological principles, bodies continue to communicate even in the absence of direct contact. As also happens among many Indigenous groups, relatives of a sick person, even those living far away, follow dietary restrictions; what they eat can affect the body of the sufferer.
As I read and listened to news on the pandemic, I was surprised by an uncanny connection: chloroquine, a medicine used for decades to treat malaria vivax, which is also endemic in Amazonia, is now being tested, albeit without any solid clinical evidence, as a potential treatment for COVID-19. No anthropologist, doctor, or any other professional who works in Amazonia can fail to recognize the name of the drug; they’ve either taken it or carry it with them in case of a malaria outbreak. While I never came down with the disease, whether out of luck or an excess of caution, I often saw my Wari’ friends suffer its effects. I was so afraid of being bitten by an infected mosquito that I would only come out from under my mosquito net well after dawn and took shelter in it again at dusk, two periods in which mosquitoes are particularly active. I spent the rest of the day wearing long pants, T-shirts, and sneakers. During a significant stretch of my life, malaria haunted me just as much as coronavirus haunts me today.
While I have an undergraduate degree in biology, I haven’t engaged with the discipline in over 30 years, so I can contribute nothing to the discussion about the use of malarial medication to treat COVID-19. As an anthropologist, however, I believed it would be interesting to take the widely available information about the functioning of viruses in general and, in the case of malaria, the mosquito Anopheles and the protozoan Plasmodium, as metaphors that allow us to conceive of different forms of “pathological action.”
Plasmodium, once introduced into the human body by the saliva of a female Anopheles, acts by simply invading human cells—first in the liver, then in the blood—and reproducing within them until it destroys them. The resulting symptoms are liver disorders, high fever, weakness, and may progress to coma and death. For the Wari’, however, malaria has a cause that is visible to the naked eye: the mosquito. It can be avoided or swatted with a hand. The message is not to avoid people, but for people to avoid the mosquitoes. In this sense, these two diseases that I associate with chloroquine, are radically different. The virus, just as invisible as the protozoan, has an anti-relational principle embedded in it, having chosen a vector that the Indigenous cannot conceive of as being such: their relatives, precisely those they are meant to be close to in daily life.
Another significant distinction between these two types of invisible beings to the naked eye—which is the Indigenous eye—lies in the radically different way in which each acts. While protozoa invade cells and fill them until they burst, the viruses slip in to trick cells, to pretend that they are part of them and then use their genetic code to reproduce. They’re identity thieves, like document falsifiers or hackers, who use users’ credentials to pass in their stead. Lévi-Strauss says that the virus, while not a living being per se since it lacks the means to reproduce independently and depends on its host, is more evolved than higher forms of life, as it necessarily comes along later in the evolutionary process. We are the programmers, they are the hackers.
To leave the biological/digital and move into the intercultural, the contrast between the modus operandi of viruses and that of Indigenous pathological agents suggests other intriguing associations. As the Wari’ see it, the most common diseases are caused by animal spirits, which are actually human beings like the Indians themselves, although only the shamans, who have a special gaze, can see them as such. These spirits are always keen to draw the Wari’ into their community, and so they attack them, piercing them with arrows or introducing parts of themselves into the bodies of the Wari’, such as claws, food, or bodily ornaments. Disease is seen as the process of transforming into an animal, which may be interrupted by a shaman or else be carried through to its conclusion, when the victim goes to live among the animals. One does not die, one becomes an other.
The metaphor of viral colonization may thus serve to frame its opposite: in Amazonia we are not seeing viruses (animal spirits) transforming into people by stealing their genetic code, the purest distillation of identity, but rather people transforming into animals, which are simply another kind of humans. The agents of the disease present themselves as another possibility of existence, inserting parts of their identity—their DNA or RNA, to continue the scientific metaphors—into their victims. Moreover, while this relationship, or struggle, takes place on the bodily plane, it is essentially social. The animals want people for themselves.
Invaders of Indigenous lands, however, like the viruses that they keep on bringing with them, do so in order to keep on reproducing themselves, using local substrata: water, forests, minerals. They leave a swath of devastation and death in their wake. In the words of some of today’s most important Indigenous voices such as Raoni, Davi Kopenawa, and Ailton Krenak, they, just like viruses, ravage that which is in fact their body. Whenever a body is destroyed, or even before, they move on to another, just like the Portuguese and Spanish moving from one people to another in search of Brazilwood, gold, silver, or even bodies to enslave, the modern-day equivalent being the hunt for minerals and timber. At some point, we know, those resources will run out and the devastation will be just as severe as the damage wrought on the host body by the virus. As Davi Kopenawa has said: “All this destruction is not our mark. It is the footprint of the whites; it is the trail you leave on the land.” We are the viruses, devouring our own body.
This essay was originally published in Portuguese on April 8, 2020 in Serrote by the Instituto Moreira Salles. It was written in dialogue with Marilyn Strathern’s piece on coronavirus to appear soon at Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, the journal of European Association for Social Anthropologists (EASA). Flora Thomson-DeVeaux translated the original essay into English.
Aparecida Vilaça is professor of social anthropology at Brazil’s Museu Nacional (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and a Brazil LAB affiliate scholar at Princeton University. Vilaça studies socio-cultural changes among Indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon, with an emphasis on conversion to Christianity and schooling.
Cite as: Vilaça, Aparecida. 2020. “The Twin Threat Facing Indigenous Peoples.” Translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux. Anthropology News website, April 17, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1379