The Lack of Oxygen in the Amazon

By Fabiano Maisonnave

Photos by Edmar Barros

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Wake of tribal leader Messias Martins Moreira. 53-year-old Martins Moreira was victim to Covid-19 on May 14,2020 in Comunidade Parque das Tribos em Manaus (AM).

“The eight relatives died in fourteen days. One after the other, we went burying them all. I didn’t even get a rest. When I was drifting off to sleep, someone would always call: ‘Your uncle died.’ ‘Your grandfather died.’ If another Kokama dies, we will not have any tears left.”

This is how the Kokama leader Edney Samias, 38, described to me his days in May when we met in the city of Tabatinga. At his request, the meeting took place at Guadalupe, an indigenous hamlet of  stilt houses along the shore of the Amazonas River. Just a few meters away, separated by a creek and hidden by a small forest, was the city of Leticia in Colombia. From the porch where we conversed, we could see Santa Rosa, in Perú, on the other side of the river.

A month later, in mid-June, Edney had already lost 17 relatives, including his father, Guilherme Samias, 64. He accused the military hospital, the only hospital in Tabatinga, of negligence. “When I questioned them, they said that the Army gives the orders, that it is doing a favor to take care of indigenous people.” 

I have lived in Manaus for the past four years. It is my home base to cover the Brazilian Amazon as a reporter for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many here thought we were talking about a sickness in countries that were cold and faraway. The successive tragedies in the cities of three countries on the shore of the Amazonas River have shown us how much the virus likes both hot humidity and inequality. 

Wake of tribal leader Messias Martins Moreira. 53-year-old Martins Moreira was victim to Covid-19 on May 14,2020 in Comunidade Parque das Tribos em Manaus (AM).

As in the period of the Conquest, the imported virus navigated along the Amazon basin: Iquitos, Santa Rosa, Leticia, Tabatinga, Coari, Tefé, Santarém, Santo Antonio do Içá, Breves, Belém and other cities that witnessed thousands of deaths in collapsed hospitals without adequate beds or oxygen, corpses piling up and improvised cemeteries. 

In Manaus, the number of deaths exploded  350 percent at the end of April, according to the calculations of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a science and technology institutions linked to the Health Ministry. Without money for private tombs, the poor buried their relatives in mass graves. Because of a lack of ventilators, some patients are breathing within huge improvised respirators made from plastic bags. In no other city on the planet affected by Covid-19 has there been such an increase in the death rate, according to a Fiocruz investigation. 

Among the Amazonian peoples, the Kokama, who also have members in  Colombia and Peru, are those who have suffered the most from the epidemic. As of mid-June, there had been 56 deaths on the Brazilian side alone. By the first week in July, the number had risen to 60. Many of these died in the military hospital in Tabatinga, which does not have an intensive care unit. This resource is only available in Manaus, 680 miles away as the bird flies. In serious condition, Edney’s father waited for eight days to be transferred to Manaus. The airplane never arrived.  

In addition to coronavirus, the Kokama have to fight invisibility. When the first deaths occurred, the Army hospital refused to identify the victims as indigenous. On the official forms, they classified them as “brown” (marrom), the statistical category mostly used in the country for Afro-descendants. This is not sheer coincidence; from colonial times, it has been state policy to convert African slaves and indigenous people into “the poor,” a source of cheap and available work that does not question national unity—that everyone is part of one great nation.  

Wake of tribal leader Messias Martins Moreira. 53-year-old Martins Moreira was victim to Covid-19 on May 14,2020 in Comunidade Parque das Tribos em Manaus (AM).

Bolsonaro’s militarized government does not hide its project of erasing minorities. On the contrary. In a cabinet meeting April 23, the then-Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub said, “I hate the expression ‘indigenous peoples,’ I hate it. There is only one people in this country. If someone does not want it that way, then leave. Everyone is a Brazilian, there can only be one people.” 

After proposing the arrest of all the Supreme Court (STF, after its acronym in Portuguese) justices, Weintraub was fired in mid-June. Ironically, he fled from Brazil to the United States to avoid arrest during the investigation into his threats against the STF. Symbolically, his act as a cabinet member was to sign into law the annulling of  incentives so that blacks, indigenous and people with disabilities could have the facility to obtain graduate degrees.  

We remember Edney’s father. When he was alive, he was treated in the military with contempt as an indigenous man. In his death, be became a “pardo,” a brown person, according to the criteria of the same hospital: the color of Brazilian poverty.  

There is a political effort on the part of black movements to attract thosw who identify themselves as “browns” in the census. It is by putting black and brown together that makes Brazil the country with the second most Black citizens in the world, after Nigeria.  But in the Amazon, the least populated zone in the country, where there was less African slavery than in other parts of Brazil, the term “brown” ends up hiding millions of people, who in the violent colonizing process, lost their connection with the original, fragile cultures, given that, once contacted, only a slight oral connection with their history persists.” 

Guadalupe Community in Tabatinga (AM) on May 19, 2020.

“To associate ‘brown’ purely with blackness means going along with the line that all of Brazil’s indigenous people have been wiped out, writes the publicist and writer Jamille Anahata, of Manaus. 

This reflection is important in understanding who is dying in the pandemic. Covid-19 kills proportionately more brown people, even in comparison to other non-white groups. According to official statistics, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, the capital of which is Manaus, as of June 17,  85.2 percent of the 2,579 dead are brown people, 3.8 percent are indigenous and 1.5 percent black. 

In the last census, brown people make up 69 percent of the population of Amazonas (a little more than four million), while indigenous and blacks represent 4.9 and 4.1 percent, respectively.

The epidemic is devastating and, without a doubt, severely affects several towns, which are losing their elderly, “the living libraries,” as Alessandra Korap, of the Munduruku tribe, observes. Among the many indigenous victims of the epidemic is the Kayapó Paulinho Paiakan, one of the most important leaders of the indigenous movement in Brazil.

However, amidst so many tragedies everywhere, those who die in the Amazon are the most invisible. Children and grandchildren of the forest people, but now encapsulated in violent and poor cities, they are now the browns—the “pardos." They are those who fill the mass graves in the Manaus cemetery. 

Indigenous child from the Kokama group in Guadalupe Community in Tabatinga (AM) on May 19, 2020.

And then, there are the “almost browns.” The anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro writes that the Barés people neither are “indigenous nor are not indigenous,”  given that they are among those who have had their culture transformed through contact.  The same applies to the Kokama. In their urban houses on stilts, they are not the ones the foreign photographers look for to capture the image of the “Amazonian indigenous.” 

In her videopoem “Indigenous Memorial of the Pandemic,” Anahata repeats the word “Kokama” 56 times. There is much wisdom in the repetition. One has to listen to her. One has to listen to them.


Fabiano Maisonnave is a reporter for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo in the Amazon. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2016.