Evaluating the Health Risk Factors Among Indigenous Wayuu Communities of Colombia Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.
By Douglas Fernandes DaSilva , PhD Candidate at University of Zurich and head of sustainable development at Mama Tierra.
We are all feeling the health and societal effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Most societies encounter struggles to keep their populations in check to contain the spread of the Corona virus and reduce death toll. Generally speaking, we in western societies have the means, tools and infrastructure to reduce further transmission and even make 98% of infected patients recover from Covid-19.
However, the Wayuu in La Guajira, between Colombia and Venezuela, are on their own and lack the basic tools to address such pandemic. As we know, the most widely accepted way of reducing the infection and spread of Coronavirus is to simply wash your hands often with soap and water. Going into a Wayuu settlement, one will find that soap may not be readily available, water is scarce and likely contaminated with microorganisms. And lack of proper sanitation increases the risk of disease and infections.
Wayuu people at increased danger due to Covid-19. This are the causes:
1. Little access to clean water.
2. No medical care, the next proper hospital is hours away.
3. Malnutrition make indigenous Wayuu more susceptible to disease.
4. Large families of 10-20 people increase risk of infection.
Water prone to be contaminated
There are two water sources Wayuu people use. 1. the “Jaguey” is a man-made lake that collects rainwater. It’s deeply exposed to elements and both humans and animals use it for drinking and bathing. From the interviews, only 4% reported doing any type of water treatment such as boiling or filtering, so most drink it as is.
Water-wells are a hand-dug wells into 12 meters under the ground, that reaches shallow ground water. It’s deeply exposed to elements and both humans and animals use it for drinking and bathing. The wells are reachable within a 30-55 minutes-walk from most households working with Mama Tierra in the Parauaipoa community. Water analysis show that despite looking clean and having a low aerobic coliform count (42 cfu/ml), the water is extremely hard (220 mg/l of insoluble metals and salts), with mineral concentrations up to 7x higher than what is acceptable for drinking water standards. For example, the high concentrations of sodium, chloride, sulfate and magnesium in this water can have many adverse effects in human health , including laxative effects in children, contributing towards diarrhea and dehydration (WHO 2017).
Lack of medical care in general
Families living within regions presenting the highest desertification levels in Alta Guajira need on average 1 hour to reach the nearest health center by a motor vehicle, but it can take as long as 3 to 5 hours to walk to a clinic when they do not have the means to pay for public transport.
Furthermore, there aren’t enough clinics and hospitals within the Uribia and Manaure municipalities. The Uribia municipality has an area of 8’200 km2, and out of an approximate 117’000 total population, 105’000 (90%) are Wayuu. Uribia has two hospitals (one in Nazareth and one in Uribia city) and six clinics sparsely located to attend the entire population. The Manaure municipality has an area of 1’900 km2, and out of an approximate 68’000 total population, 46’000 (68%) are Wayuu. Manaure has one hospital and five clinics available to the entire population. In comparison, the Riohacha municipality (located southwest of Manaure) has an area of 3’100 km2, and out of 150’000 total population, 30’000 (20%) are Wayuu. Between clinics and hospitals, Riohacha has 164 health facilities available to the population [DANE 2005, GDC 2018]. Therefore, there is a clear disparity between the municipalities, and the specific areas densely populated by the Wayuu seem to be at a disadvantage in terms of health infrastructure. The hospital of Rio Hacha , the capital of the department La Guajira, offers 14 beds in isolation in case of Covid-19 infections.
One can argue that this is the way the Wayuu have lived for hundreds of years, and their immune system may be used to the harsh conditions of their environment, but just in the past ten years they have experienced extended droughts due to climate change, causing their rivers and lands to dry, crops and animals to die, and consequently increasing the incidence of malnutrition, disease and mortality. Within the same past decade one can also see credible international news sources (such as Cosoy 2015, IWGIA 2015, Rosso 2016, Fajardo 2017 and Chaparro 2017) decrying the problems among the Wayuu people and the lack of attention they are receiving. Now, let’s add the COVID-19 pandemic into this equation. We hear our government telling us to wash our hands and self-isolate, while the Wayuu have no readily available source of clean water and live within large communities that depend on each other for basic survival. It is impossible for these indigenous population to self-isolate or promote “social distancing” because they don’t have readily available supermarkets nearby but depend on their family group to satisfy basic food necessities [WFP 2015].
Pandemic decimate indigenous populations
At the moment, it would take 1 case among these communities for us to perhaps look at a large-scale humanitarian crisis that has the power to nearly devastate an entire population. Let’s remember the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009. Indigenous peoples represent 4 % of the Canadian population but made out 10% of hospitalisations and deceased during the swine flu.
Situation in Venezuela is uncertain
Many of our Venezuelan artisans purchase food and medicine in Colombia, as such goods are not available in Venezuela. The border between Colombia and Venezuela will remain closed from 24 March. There is great concern among the indigenous artisans as they receive their wages and materials in Colombia. The Wayuu are planning to pass through the dangerous 'Trochas', clandestine land routes used for smuggled goods such as petrol. We discourage them from doing so, and have provided many families with food and supplies to bridge the quarantine.
The Colombian and Venezuelan government, private and non-profit institutions are urged, with the utmost planning and care, provide for these populations at this very difficult time. We from Mama Tierra Association are doing our part to carefully plan and execute interventions to maintain our commitment with the Wayuu populations we support. You can find out more about our initiatives and donate towards the livelihood and health of Wayuu communities here https://mama-tierra.org/en/content/category/7-donate
M.A. Douglas Fernandes da Silva is a PhD Candidate at University of Zurich and head of sustainable development at Mama Tierra, researching about the link between the relationship between the progressive desertification in the Colombian Guajira and the health of the Wayuu indigenous peoples.
Douglas research questions simple questions comprehend the following:
1) Can we reverse soil degradation through establishing water and agricultural infrastructures?
2) What is the current situation of the healthcare capacity to attend the population?
3) What are government, private and non-profit agencies doing to address food insecurity, malnutrition, health and childhood mortality among the Wayuu populations?