Covid-19 reaches the Amazon

The Covid-19 pandemic has now reached the Amazon Basin, with crisis situations unfolding in the major cities of Iquitos in Peru and Manaus in Brazil. In a region with completely inadequate social services, horror stories of mass burials and patients being treated outside on hospital grounds have to stand in for accurate figures. Covid-19 patients are reported to have died for lack of oxygen bottles for ventilation.

Even more so than in areas hit hard by the pandemic in late March and April, like New York City and Lombardy, Italy, health services in the Amazon have been incapable of keeping track of SARS-CoV-2 infections and treating sick patients. 

In Iquitos, for instance, the city of nearly half a million people has just 180 hospital beds. Officials have recorded 794 deaths, but claim only 2,315 infections, which amounts to an impossible 34% fatality rate.

As a partial response, the government has implemented a draconian lock-down. Now into Day 63 of lock-down, curfew runs from 4pm – 4am, with a 24hr curfew on Sunday and military patrols, as travellers’ blogs report

Meanwhile in Manaus, a city of 2m people, there are reportedly 20,900 cases and 1,400 deaths. Yet when coronavirus has been spreading through the city for more than a month, and local news reports more than 100 people being buried per day, even 1,400 deaths seems an understatement. 

For many residents of these Amazonian cities, the hygiene guidelines issued by national authorities are completely irrelevant. In Manaus, one in four households do not even have access to running water, nor are they connected to the sewerage system. 

Hundreds of thousands of people live in the slums of both cities, many of whom are the descendants of displaced indigenous peoples from all around Amazonia. The slums of Iquitos, in particular, are some of the worst in the world.

A big part of the problem is a political system that remains profoundly colonial and extractive. The Loreto province, where Iquitos is located, was built on the back of the horrors of the rubber boom before transitioning to oil in the 20th century. If you’re wondering whose interests the state represents, have a look at the province’s flag:

Sadly, as US ally and free trade agreement “partner”, Peru levies very minimal rents on oil extraction. The country produces around 36m barrels per year, 24.8m of which come from the Amazon. Yet from this oil worth $2.05 bn on 2019 prices, the government receives annual royalties of just $120m. So it’s no wonder the hospitals can’t afford oxygen bottles.