Challenging times for Wayuu due to COVID-19

People around the world are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While governments lock their populations down to contain the virus, these measures accentuate the already adverse situation in which indigenous peoples live. Enduring an economic shutdown is challenging for Wayuu indigenous, who depend on informal commerce, pastoral activities and petty commodity production for their subsistence.

La Guajira area presents the highest index of malnutrition in Colombia, showing a 2.25 times higher risk of childhood mortality due to malnutrition and disease. What’s more, reports show, that nearly 5.000 Wayuu children have died from preventable causes between 2012 and 2015, and this number may have exponentially increased at the moment.

Due to desertification the capacity of cultivating is extremely diminished. Therefore, Wayuu depend on packaged goods such as beans, corn and flour for their survival. But reaching food markets in far-away cities is a nearly impossible task during the quarantine.

The governments in Latin-American fail to come up with bridging solutions for indigenous minorities such as the one of the Wayuu people. A stay-at-home-policy turns out difficult for indigenous peoples as the Wayuu, because of the following reasons:

The Wayuu are a community-inclined society
The Wayuu live in large communities called Rancherias with 10 to 20 people from the same family sharing a common physical space. Because of the low resources and lack of markets, they rely on other communities for services, trade and food. Consequently, Rancherias are constantly networking so they can help each other. Therefore, for the Wayuu our «stay home» or «social distancing» rules, unfortunately are difficult to meet.

As a matter of fact, in average, three generations live in the same physical space, making the concept of isolating the elderly almost impossible. The elderly usually stay with their oldest daughter, who takes care of them until they die.
Another collective everyday practice is their craft production. Several women gather at a friends or family home, where they produce crafts together, such as the Wayuu bags. Tasks are divided depending on age or skill. For example, older children watch over younger siblings as it is the case of the six-years-old Chiqui, who watches over her two-year-old sister and two baby cousins. Her 72-year-old grandfather makes some of the shoulder straps for the bags after collecting the family goats from different feeding areas. Meanwhile her mother, aunts and great-aunts, all between 20- and 73-years-old, weave the bags.

Three generations living together under the same roof with no real rooms to isolate anyone

Over-inflated prices for food supplies
The Colombian government has declared a national quarantine to contain the virus until end of April 2020. The population in general is scared – breakouts increase as well as violence on the streets. Because of it, the markets available to the Wayuu in Colombia as well as in Venezuela are either closing or not being restocked. The price for goods has nearly tripled in price. For example, 1kg of rice usually costs COP 3,500 (approximately CHF 0.80) – as of the 9th April, we have been informed that the same kilo of rice now costs COP 9,000 (CHF 2.20).

Shutdown in Colombia affects Venezuelans Wayuu
Prices for food items have nearly tripled in price in the Colombian Guajira – something many families are not equipped to deal with. The Venezuelan Wayuu people Mama Tierra works with, source their food supplies from Colombia, since Venezuela suffers a great deal of scarcity since a couple of years. However, the Colombian-Venezuelan border has been closed since the 23rd of March. The latter makes it impossible for thousands of Venezuelans the access to salaries, food supplies as well as crafting materials such as yarns for their handcrafts in Colombia. Crossing the border during this time is not unusual though, but Wayuu people face many dangers such as jail, robbery and being stuck in the middle of the desert due to lack of transportation.

Lack of information and water
Not only the geographic distance makes it difficult to inform Wayuu people about ways to prevent the virus, but also the cultural one. All information is in Spanish, which is not understood by all people, especially not the elderly, who are in the risk group.

Based on the OPS and WHO information pamphlets, Mama Tierra has provided reliable and concise information to 50 families in Wayuunaiki, the language of the Wayuu indigenous people. This has allowed them to understand the situation and to be empowered to address the pandemic within their own means.

Water is actually a scarce resource in La Guajira desert. It is usually contaminated with microorganisms and the lack of proper sanitation increases the risk of other diseases and infections. This makes hand-washing, an easy and effective presentation measure, hard to meet.

An 8 year old boy and his donkey fetch water from the nearest well.

What would an outbreak mean in La Guajira
As per April 9th, there has been one reported COVID-19 case in Riohacha. An outbreak would be catastrophic, since the department lacks the means to take care of infected people. The hospital in Riohacha has 75 ICU beds and 40 ventilators – if 1% of the population were to suddenly develop acute symptoms of COVID-19, the hospital would need at least 3000 beds and ventilators to properly attend the population.

Nearly 60% of the Wayuu population in Colombia, hence 260’000 people, live in the Uribia municipality. This area is approximately over 8’000 km2 big. Only two hospitals and six poorly equipped small clinics are available to attend this population. In addition, such clinics are located in distant corners of the municipality and there are no paved roads and no reliable transport for families to reach these health centers. The Mama Tierra families themselves need to walk an average 4 to 5 hours, on the usual 35oC daytime heat, to reach one of these health centers. In light of their necessities, it would take 1 case of COVID-19 among these populations for a large-scale humanitarian crisis that has the power to nearly devastate an entire community.

Hunger and corruption
Since schools closed on March 23rd due to the national quarantine, the kids of Alta Guajira, Colombia, have stopped receiving the free meals given at school for each student. Regularly, such meals comprise the only meal a child would have during a day!

As per April 1st, the UN World Food Program has delivered 14’367 food kits of the 25’788 that it will distribute to various municipalities in the department of La Guajira in the context of the emergency plan due to COVID-19. However, it has been reported that food kits arrive late and incomplete

Mama Tierra is not staying idle during this crisis. A small amount of food has already been sent to the artisans and we plan to continue doing so, but we could do much more with your engagement.

Corn, rice, spaghetti, coffee. Loaded in Maicao heading to Alta Guajira. March 22nd 2020.

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