Experiencing Covid-19 in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest

Issue: XXVIII.2 March - April 2021
Page: 10
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Kaleidos Collective

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What is it like to experience Covid-19 in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest? We found out by speaking with a community of the Shuar, Indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru. Our conversations gave us a sense of the distance that exists between healthcare provided by the Ecuadorian state and caring for health within the Shuar community. In April 2020, a friend and leader of a Shuar community reached out to several colleagues to denounce the racist response to the pandemic in their communities from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health. In their community alone, there were more than 15 people with symptoms similar in every way to Covid-19. Yet the staff from the Ministry of Health insisted there were no cases. It was early in the pandemic, testing was scarce, and medical staff were overworked; but this was no reason to deny the experience of sickness that Shuar communities were undergoing. Their symptoms were dismissed as "some form of tropical disease" and they were told their way of life was to blame, due to "living in huts filled with smoke." The official response reproduced many of the inequalities that exist in Ecuadorian society linked to gender, race, ethnicity, and class. Our Shuar friends received help only after international and national organizations and individuals created a public outcry over how they were being ignored and potentially left to die in the depths of the rainforest. There is little access to hospitals and healthcare centers as you move away from the more urban areas into the rainforest. But to our friends, this remoteness—the connections to the forest, its animals, its waterfalls, and its sounds—is what makes their lives and livelihoods possible. The rainforest is their healing space because it is where knowledge is made and where expert views on how to care for the body and soul come from. From their point of view, it is their experience and knowledge of medicinal plants, administered with attentive care and passed on through generations, that ultimately allowed the community to limit the number of Covid-19 deaths.

ins01.gif Mix of ayahuasca liana (natem; Banisteriopsis caapi) with yaji (Diplopterys cabrerana).

The way in which care is administered makes a difference in how health knowledge is perceived, learned, and adapted—relationships matter. And though the absence of the state is not new to Indigenous communities across Ecuador, the unequal playing field on which biomedical approaches meet other forms of healing has historically produced tense relationships between the state and Indigenous communities. This is even more relevant when a community like the Shuar reaches out to the public health system to treat Covid-19, only to meet resistance and disdain. The fragile belief that the Shuar have in public services vanishes in the face of belittlement and negligence, reinforcing the need for local, known, and familiar means of healing and caring for the community's well-being. The Shuar community we spoke to have treated Covid-19 mainly with medicinal plants and natural healing systems. Though some of them have been brought to hospitals as a last resort, the majority have healed within their communities using alternative medicinal treatments. The images shown here highlight the colorful and carefully selected mix of plants and splints used in different kinds of therapy among this Shuar community.

ins02.gif Brew of natsampar (Santa Maria), from the family of Piperaceae, picked from the undergrowth of secondary forest. Piperaceae is among the most important medicinal families in Amazonia.

But neglect and the lack of trustworthy public institutions and healing practices have also opened the door to "informal" treatments, which often lie outside conventional biomedicine. For example, a group of chlorine dioxide enthusiasts approached the community touting the benefits of their chlorine-based product for treating Covid-19. Due to the long-term relationship between them and the Shuar, their treatment was welcomed, despite the benefits of chlorine dioxide being questioned by numerous international health organizations (including the WHO/PAHO), which do not recommended it for treating Covid-19. Still, what matters most among this Shuar community in deciding which healing methods to adopt are these friendship and care practices, especially in the absence of the Ministry of Health. Our friends report feeling healthy and stronger, though one woman in their community did die from Covid-19.

The rainforest is their healing space because it is where expert views on how to care for the body and soul come from.

At Kaleidos (, a research center in Ecuador, we are interested in approaching medical treatments critically, looking at the way in which health knowledge and relationships are produced in our own environments. We aim to question which science creates knowledge and how it is legitimized among different populations. Using an ethnographic approach, we inquire into the construction of expert knowledge but also the social relationships among scientists, individuals, and communities that shape the way in which health knowledge is transmitted, practiced, and sometimes withdrawn. We work with doctors and civil servants as much as with communities and individuals. We explore many of the underlying assumptions in the construction of expert knowledge, and we direct our efforts toward broadening that conversation to include as many voices as possible. We aim to continue that effort and invite the ACM readership to visit our website and reach out to us in the hopes of continuing to expand our kaleidoscopic approach to knowledge making: a multivoiced and critically engaged outlook to pressing local issues connected to global debates.

ins03.gif The women's gardens (aja) can welcome up to 70 different species of cultivated plants.
ins04.gif Entsakua Marian collects what he needs for himself and his loved ones.
ins05.gif It is not always necessary to go to the forest to look for useful plants: These are often cultivated around houses. In this picture it is possible to see several varieties of piripiri (Cyperus sp.) and ají (jimia; Solanácea).

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Kaleidos Collective is a cooperative form of writing that invites different authors to come together for the production of a written text according to their academic expertise and ethnographic knowledge. Kaleidos Collective authors of this text are: Natalia Buitron, Greg Deshoullière, and Maka Suarez.,

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