PAHO Director urges countries to prioritize hard-hit indigenous communities in COVID-19 pandemic responses

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Marks “grim pandemic milestone” of two million deaths in the Americas and calls for more vaccines to combat the pandemic.

More than Six Lakhs indigenous people have been infected with COVID-19 in the Americas

Washington, D.C., Aug. 7, 2021 (PAHO) Pan American Health Organization Director Carissa F. Etienne reported that 617,000 indigenous people have been infected with COVID-19 in the Americas and urged countries to prioritize the hard-hit communities.

“It’s likely that many more have been infected, but we may not know it because they have struggled to get the COVID care they deserve,” she said during her weekly media briefing.

Nearly Fifteen thousand indigenous people died from COVID complications

She added that “nearly 15,000 (indigenous people) have died from COVID complications since the start of the pandemic.” The statistics are based on data from several countries.

Leaving No One Behind: International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

In advance of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, observed August 9, Dr Etienne noted that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in the Americas, adding that most indigenous peoples lack the financial and social safety nets to ensure they can continue to provide for their families and communities, even when they’re sick.

Many of our indigenous peoples live in remote and isolated areas where a clinic or a doctor may be many kilometres or days away. Even those who live in urban centres still face invisible barriers – like language, stigma, and poverty – that can keep health care out of reach,” she said.

Countries should engage indigenous groups in the COVID-19 response and ensure that health workers are sensitive to the needs and languages of indigenous communities, and “respect the tradition of ancestral medicine still practised by many of our indigenous peoples,” Dr Etienne urged.

She noted that 17 countries in the Americas have listed indigenous peoples as a priority group for COVID vaccinations and vaccination campaigns are underway in those and other countries.

“So far, more than 134,000 indigenous people have been fully vaccinated across Guatemala and more than 312,000 have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations in Brazil. But we don’t have data from every country,” Dr Etienne said.

The Americas reach 2 million COVID deaths

Turning to the pandemic situation in the Americas, she said that more than 1.2 million COVID-19 cases and 20,000 COVID-related deaths were reported over the last week. COVID-19 infections are accelerating in North America, “driven primarily by a surge in cases in the southern and eastern United States and in central Mexico.”

Cases are rising in the Caribbean and dropping across South America, although some Brazilian states have seen an increase in infections, Dr Etienne said. “This underscores that, until we effectively contain the transmission, infections can surge quickly. So, masks, social distancing and other public health measures remain crucial.”

She marked the “grim pandemic milestone” of two million deaths from COVID-19 in the Americas, calling the number “a distressing reminder that we must act urgently to prevent further suffering” and reiterating her plea for more vaccines for the Americas.

Today, vaccines, which are a beacon of hope to control this pandemic, remain out of reach for far too many people in the Americas. Just 18% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Dr Etienne said.

Answering a question on the Delta variant of the virus, now present in 22 countries in the Americas, she said, “The best way to stop the virus, regardless of the variant, is to reinforce public health measures including appropriate use of masks, social distancing, isolation of patients, quarantine of contacts, and vaccination.”

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