MANGUAL, Peru – Mariano Quisto, a remote community leader in Peru’s dense Amazon rainforest, first learned of the global pandemic in October when health workers arrived by boat to his remote village with vaccines.
âWe didn’t know about Covid-19. This is the first time we’ve heard of it, âQuisto said through a translator from the village of Mangual, in the vast but sparsely populated region of Loreto in the north of the country.
Reuters arrived with government health workers and members of the International Red Cross in the indigenous Urarina community of Quisto, after a three-day river boat ride from the Amazon city of Iquitos, the largest metropolis in the world inaccessible by road.
In Mangual, the highest village upstream of the river, locals hunt and fish for food and live in wooden stilt houses without electricity. Connection with the outside world is minimal and the local language has developed in isolation over the centuries.
âThe brigades haven’t been here for many years. These communities are truly forgotten, âsaid Gilberto Inuma, president of Fepiurcha, an organization that defends the rights of Urarina.
The indigenous Urarina group, one of the most insular in Peru, has a population of just 5,800, according to official data. Not all communities have been spared by the knowledge or the impact of the pandemic. At least five people from Urarina have died from Covid-19, Inuma said.
The Upstream Journey highlights the challenges of immunizing isolated indigenous communities in Peru and beyond, as well as gaps in access to health care for isolated groups.
Many community members complained that what they really needed was better, ongoing health services.
In the village without doctors, ailments include headaches, diarrhea, malaria and conjunctivitis, Quisto said. âWe don’t know how to take care of our patients. This is our concern.
Indigenous communities, especially in the Amazon, have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Peru, said Julio Mendigure, who heads health policy for groups at the country’s health ministry.
Less than 20% of them have been fully vaccinated, compared to about half for the country as a whole, he said.
âWhen you look at that number, you have to remember that in order to deliver the two doses, the teams have to travel 4 to 5 hours. This is at the best of times, âexplained Mendigure. Reaching Mangual required 26 hours of travel over three days along rivers that were sometimes dry or blocked by fallen trees.
The boat included a blue cooler containing 800 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, refrigerated with dry ice. A team will return in November to give the second doses after administering more than 600 inoculations.
âI decided to get the vaccine so I wouldn’t get sick,â said a woman from Urarina who was vaccinated and asked not to be named because the community so rarely speaks to strangers.
âBecause it is possible that if traders come to visit, they will bring the disease and pass it on. “