This text was written by Emily Costa and Kátia Brasil, for the Amazônia Real website and is reproduced on Global Voices under a content sharing agreement.
On July 1 and after two months of waiting, a Yanomami mother, belonging to the Sanoma subgroup, received the body of her daughter in the Onkopiu village, Roraima state. The baby died on May 1 of hydranencephaly and sepsis in a hospital in the state capital, Boa Vista. According to the state's Medical Legal Institute (IML), the girl's body was kept in a cold room all that time.
According to documents from the Secretary of Indigenous Health (Sesai) to which the report had access, the reason for the wait was that the mother contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized. The mother recovered. The girl did not become infected, which would ensure her transfer for the funeral ritual in the village.
In another part of the document, signed by a social worker, Sesai communicates that the transfer could not be made because there were “no scheduled flights for family members to enter the area.”
The situation is similar to that of other Yanomami mothers who seek the right to bury their children according to their traditions amid funeral restrictions due to the pandemic of the new coronavirus.
Three other Yanomami babies, who died between April and May as a result of COVID-19, were buried in the Boa Vista cemetery without the mothers' consent. For them, the children's bodies were missing; They were located during the count of the Amazônia Real report.
Junior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the Yanomami District Health Council (Condisi-Y), a body subordinate to Sesai, says that the mother sanoma was aware that the body was in the IML and requested to do the funeral ritual in the village.
“The communities are asking, calling, asking us to send (the body) as fast as possible,” he told Amazônia Real, a day before the body was brought to the mother's place.
Amazônia Real asked Sesai for explanations for having had the girl's body for two months in the IML, but we did not receive a response.
The head of the organ, Robson Silva, visited the region on July 1, with General Fernando de Azevedo Silva, minister of the Defesa of the Jair Bolsonaro government, and representatives of the National Indian Foundation (Funai). In Brazilian Air Force planes, they brought medical attention, medications, supplies, and teams of journalists from international agencies to the Yanomami communities.
That same day, the girl's body was flown to the village at 11:00. The trip lasted less than two hours. The transfer could only be done because the girl had not had COVID-19, the Health Council said.
When asked about the reaction of the community when receiving the body of the sanoma girl, Junior Yanomami said that it was comforting but that the entire community is in mourning.
It is not the first time that health authorities have stopped informing Yanomami parents about burial of their children in Boa Vista cemeteries.
The first case of the new coronavirus among the ethnic group was that of a 15-year-old boy, in the municipality of Alto Alegre, also in Roraima, in a region with a high incidence of miners in the Uraricoera river. Despite having symptoms since March 18, she was tested only on April 6. Three days later, the young man died in a hospital in the state capital.
At the time, Dario Kopenawa Yanomami, director of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, said that the authorities were lacking respect and knowledge about traditional ceremonies of indigenous culture. The case was reported to the Federal Public Ministry.
“The parents (despite being in Boa Vista) were not informed of the burial, it was an error that is being questioned,” he said.
For the French anthropologist Bruce Albert, burying a Yanomami victim without the consent of his relatives demonstrates a lack of ethics and a lack of empathy from the authorities. “In addition to mothers, having a deceased without traditional funeral rituals is, for the Yanomami, as for any other people, an inhuman and therefore infamous act.”
The Federal Public Ministry opened a process to guarantee the identification of Yanomami bodies and subsequent return to indigenous land when it was sanitary and if the community of origin so wished. In the report, the organ says that they met with indigenous leaders and health representatives to discuss the burial of indigenous victims of COVID-19. He said that the objective was “to align protocols with the objective of having greater communication, information and accompaniment for indigenous people, but respecting the health of communities to avoid risks.”
On June 30, Dário Kopenawa Yanomami said the mothers were informed where the babies' bodies were “after much criticism” and that they “communicated them very late.” On July 2, he traveled to Brasilia and met with the Vice President of the Republic, General Hamilton Mourão, and the indigenous federal deputy Joênia Wapichana. In addition to talking about the fight against the pandemic of the Yanomami peoples, they also discussed the invasion of 20,000 miners in the territory.
Three mothers are still waiting
In addition to the baby who was at the Legal Medical Institute, the report found the graves of three other Yanomami minors whose mothers were looking for them. The bodies are in the Campo da Saudade private cemetery in Boa Vista.
Those other three Yanomami mothers are still waiting for answers on when they will receive the bodies of their babies to perform the funeral rituals in the villages. The babies died from a disease suspected to be the new coronavirus.
Sesai confirmed the cause of the deaths. A child died on April 29 at a hospital under the responsibility of the Roraima government. The mother was positive for coronavirus. The baby was buried three weeks after his death on May 20, according to documents consulted for the report.
The other two babies, from the sanoma subgroup, died on May 25 and were buried next to each other. One was two months old and died of acute kidney failure and suspected COVID-19 at a hospital managed by the Boa Vista Prefecture. The other was three days old and died after contracting the infection.
The risk of contagion from the pandemic prevents the transfer of the bodies now. “It is only possible to remove bodies buried by judicial means or if the minimum time for exhumation is expected, three years for adults and two years for children and newborns,” says Anselmo Martinez, administrator of the cemetery where the children are.
Since the first case of COVID-19 among the Yanomami indigenous people, registered in April, more than 200 people of the ethnic group became infected in the territory, located in the states of Roraima and Amazonas. The Sesai epidemiological bulletin of July 15, reported that there are 262 Yanomami infected by the virus. Four deaths were confirmed; the three babies and a boy of 15 years.