We have always known of the relationship between zoonotic diseases and environmental destruction. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists warned of the dangers of a new outbreak linked to continuous deforestation in South Asia and the consequent increase in the birth rate of bats (a common carrier of transferable novel viruses). Yet because of neglect and intense capitalist greed, little was done about it. The chopping and burning down of forests reached new heights in 2018 when 12 million hectares of tropical forest in the world were lost due to deforestation.
The Amazon rainforest has not escaped this devastating global reality. As it stands today, with the amount of deforestation happening yearly, it could become the new breeding ground of another virus outbreak. Based on the current pandemic and the fragility of our health care system, we are setting ourselves up for additional pandemics to strike us in the future. Meanwhile, especially for indigenous people and other local communities that have lived in the Amazon rainforest for centuries, it means we are laying the groundwork for a 21st-Century genocide.
Just in the State of Amazonas, where a big part of the Amazon rainforest and local indigenous communities are located, the government reports about 1,235 total deaths from the coronavirus. Many of these indigenous and (impoverished rural Black) quilombola communities in the Amazon lack medical infrastructure, which puts them more at risk. Reported numbers are only superficial, because many cases go unregistered. In fact, additional data suggests that there was more than a 500% increase in the number of deaths caused by respiratory problems in the recent months, which, if considered COVID-19 cases, as seems likely, would bump up the official number of deaths by three times.
These numbers also do not take into account those who have died fighting to defend the forest and their communities from loggers, gold mining, cattle ranchers, and soy growers who have been endorsed by the federal government to continue their invasion and destruction of the Amazon despite the pandemic. Recently there were so many bodies that people had to be buried in mass graves, sometimes without being identified.
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has introduced major changes to the country’s indigenous land policy to accelerate this genocidal process. Just in the first four months of this year, deforestation has soared by 55% as compared to 2019, putting the Amazon at increased risk for a yet another severe fire season, which could aggravate the deadly impact of COVID-19 in the region.
People are asking whether this will be another sad chapter of the unjust killing of indigenous, Black, and working people. Maybe it will, but it doesn’t have to be. After all, if there is one thing which we have learned from centuries of struggle and resistance on the part of workers, indigenous communities, and communities of color, it is that there are great possibilities for radical change when we refuse to sit passively and wait for the worse. From the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest to farmworkers in California, rail workers in France to hospital workers in Hong Kong, this is our time to recognize our common struggle, unite forces, and fight back.
Featured image credit: Matt Zimmerman / Creative Commons