Brazil military moves to protect Indigenous people from COVID-19 deep in Amazon forest

By Leonardo Benassatto and Adriano Machado

BOA VISTA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil's military delivered protective supplies and medicines on Tuesday by helicopter to isolated Amazon indigenous communities bordering Venezuela and tested frightened members for COVID-19.

None tested positive to the rapid finger-prick tests, but the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to decimate hundreds of Amazon tribes that have no immunity to external diseases and whose communal lifestyle rules out social distancing.

The operation to help the Yanomami who live on Brazil's largest reservation is aimed at countering criticism that the right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro is not doing enough to protect indigenous people from contagion.

"The main goal of this joint operation by the armed forces is to track COVID-19s in the nearby villages," naval medic Captain Jarbas de Souza said.

The Army airlifted supplies from the Roraima state capital of Boa Vista on a Blackhawk helicopter to a military frontier post deep in the rainforest, with boxes of face masks, alcohol gel, aprons, gloves, tests and medicines, including 13,500 pills of the controversial anti-malaria drug chloroquine.

Apprehensive Yanomami and Yekuana people, barefoot and wearing masks, lined up to be tested or seen by doctors for other health issues in a nearby village. Babies cried after the finger pricks.

"They are scared," said Elaine Maciel, of the regional office of the government's indigenous affairs agency Funai.

"It is an unknown virus to them, as it is for us. Many preferred to isolate themselves and not come to see the medical team as a way of avoiding contagions," she said.

Maciel said the Yekuana, who have access to the internet and know more about the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, were the most frightened of contact, while the Yanomami interacted easily, exchanging gifts with the outsiders, their craftwork for bars of soap and batteries.

Brazilian Minister of Defense Fernando Azevedo, a retired army general, will visit the operation at the Auaris border post on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Leo Benassatto and Adriano Machado; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Leslie Adler)