The Coronavirus Is Spreading Through Indigenous Communities In The Amazon The governor of Amazonas, Colombia, says it was impossible to cut the area off from Brazil, even as the virus spiked. Now the Colombian border town of Leticia is a coronavirus hot spot.
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The Coronavirus Is Spreading Through Indigenous Communities In The Amazon

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The Coronavirus Is Spreading Through Indigenous Communities In The Amazon

The Coronavirus Is Spreading Through Indigenous Communities In The Amazon

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brazil has registered more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other nation except the U.S. And now the disease is spreading across Brazil's border. One of the latest coronavirus hotspots is the Colombian town of Leticia. Reporter John Otis reports the virus has hit Leticia's indigenous population hard, including one of the town's famous sons.

JOHN OTIS: Leticia is an Amazon river port on Colombia's southern frontier with Brazil. There are no roads connecting the jungle town to the rest of Colombia, so the 50,000 people who live there get most of their food and supplies from Brazil. Jose Galdino (ph) the governor of Colombia's Amazonas state, which includes Leticia, says this dependence on Brazil has made it impossible for Colombia to seal its border.

JESUS GALDINO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "As a result," he said, "when the coronavirus broke out in Brazil, it quickly spread to Leticia." Now nearly 2,000 people in and around Leticia are sick with COVID-19. At least 75 have died. Because the state is sparsely populated, it's the highest per capita death rate in all of Colombia.

Among the first to fall ill was Antonio Bolivar, a member of the Ocaina Indigenous tribe and a part-time actor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT")

ANTONIO BOLIVAR: (As Old Karamakate, speaking Ocaina).

OTIS: That's Bolivar speaking in the Ocaina language in the Colombian film "Embrace Of The Serpent," which was nominated for an Oscar in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT")

A BOLIVAR: (As Old Karamakate, speaking Ocaina).

OTIS: In the movie, Bolivar plays the last survivor of an Amazonian tribe who guides an American botanist through the jungle to find a sacred healing plant. In real life, Bolivar was the one who needed to be cured. In April, he came down with a high fever and had trouble breathing, says his son, Cristian Bolivar.

CRISTIAN BOLIVAR: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: We were treating him with natural medicine, he says. But things took a turn for the worse, so I called an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

Indigenous people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Some live on reservations near Leticia and lack internet access to get information about the disease. What's more, their communal traditions can increase contagion, says German Palacio, a university law professor in Leticia.

GERMAN PALACIO: It's, like, a cultural thing. You share with others food, drinking. Everybody is drinking from the same source or from the same glass.

OTIS: For those who fall ill, there are few options in Leticia. The town should be home to a brand-new public hospital, but corrupt government officials pocketed much of the money, and it was never built. What does exist is a 60-year-old public hospital with broken sinks and toilets. In April, many of its doctors and nurses resigned over the lack of medical equipment and because they hadn't been paid in months. This was the hospital where Cristian Bolivar brought his father, the film actor Antonio Bolivar.

C BOLIVAR: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Cristian says doctors there lacked a device to measure the oxygen level in his father's blood, so he took his father to an expensive private clinic, but it was full. After several more hours lying in the back of an ambulance, Antonio Bolivar was finally taken back to the public hospital, where he was admitted. Four days later, Leticia's movie star died at the age of 75.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

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