The Historical Invisibility of Quilombolas During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Adriana Abreu, Sam Schramski and Cícero Pedrosa Neto, Guest Writers*

*Learn more about the authors at the bottom of the post

Reporting for this post was funded by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund

The absence of data worsens the damage caused by the novel coronavirus in quilombola communities–descendants of escaped African and Afro-Brazilian slaves–located throughout the Amazon. According to a COVID-19-19 observatory[1] established by the quilombola civil society organization CONAQ and Instituto Socioambiental, through January 2021, 190 quilombolas passed away as a result of COVID-19 in Brazil since the start of the pandemic, including 51 in the state of Pará alone. However, from CONAQ’s perspective, this number is likely only 10% of the actual number of cases and mortalities given that quilombola communities have received so little assistance from the federal government during the pandemic.

Photo of an igarapé, a large stream that serves as the lifeblood for so many quilombola communities in the Amazon region as a source for food and water and medium of transport. Credit: Cícero Pedrosa Neto.

Quilombola communities in the Brazilian Amazon have already been devastated by the advance of commercial and state interests on their ancestral territories. A traditionally forest and river-dependent peoples, their rural livelihoods have often kept them on the outside of Brazil’s social and economic successes over the years. With limited access to formal education, health services and economic opportunities, their struggle is fundamentally a constitutional one: to be counted and accounted for in the face of longstanding discrimination.

Indeed, the Brazilian government doesn’t possess any reliable statistical information about this population. To put it mildly, the formulation of emergency plans to combat COVID-19-19 in quilombola communities are severely hampered when cases of infection in the population aren’t even registered. As for the simple reason why this is the case? Federal and state governments have never been legally compelled to do so.

The backdrop to all this is the ever-present structural racism in Brazilian society, which may be surprising to some readers. Despite the fact that 55, 8%[2] of the national population identifies as at least partly Black, and that there is a significant contingent of quilombolas (roughly 6 million people, by some estimates), much of the recent increased awareness about the conditions of Black Brazilians has not included an understanding of quilombolas. Given that the Brazilian census agency, IBGE, and the National Demographic Census it administers are meant to update the profile of the country, how does one account for demographic changes without accounting for 6 million people?

“Communities are suffering greatly from this process of rights being denied,” points out Raimundo Magno, member of the quilombola organization MALUNGU[3], based in Pará, Brazil.  “We are in a very bad situation.  A situation with many struggles, protest, in an attempt to get the State to recognize the rights and the difficulties and communities live with.”

According to Guiomar Tavares, from the community of São Sebastião in the Jambuaçu Quilombola Territory, quilombolas struggle daily in order to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected. In some ways, this is a continuation of the fight against slavery that improved in 1888 (the official date for abolition in Brazil), yet still persists, often preventing quilombolas from accessing basic human rights.

“We suffer so that our rights are granted and there’s a law that guarantees this, but it’s only listed on paper. I often say that slavery didn’t end for us yet, you know? We still have a lot to fight about, for our freedom.”

Questions related to quilombola identity are not listed on hospital forms nor reported by health secretaries that would normally manage statistics on COVID-19 infection and mortality. The little data that exists comes from quilombola communities via their own grassroots networks of support. It is they who have taken on the responsibility of counting the sick and the dead. Civil society groups report that 4,895cases of COVID-19 within the quilombola population in Brazil with a mortality rate above the national average of close to 3%. CONAQ relates that in Brazil’s North, specifically the Amazon region, this percentage rises to 11.5%.

With roughly 6,000 quilombolas living in Pará (again, IBGE is of little help here), the infection rate would be estimated to be 36% according to a survey conducted by MALUNGU. Also according to this survey in Pará, there were 2,168 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in quilombolas since the beginning of the pandemic, 1,238 suspected untreated cases of COVID-19, and 1,246 suspected COVID-19 involving medical treatment. Notably, while Pará State leads in the ranking of the highest number of quilombolas who’ve passed away as a result of COVID-19 in the Amazon region (51 mortalities), CONAQ maintains this number is almost certainly an undercount: the World Health Organization estimates the global “infection fatality rate” to converge at .5-1% of those infected. The quilombola population here exhibits something on the order of a 2.4% mortality rate.

Now, in the state of Pará, the landscape is not promising: The overall mortality rate is slightly less, at 2.3%, with 7,578 deaths and 327,281 cases of COVID-19 confirmed since the beginning of the pandemic. But the total infection rate is 4.1%, or a ninth of Paraense quilombolas. Brazil’s overall mortality rate, meanwhile, is 2.5%  (221,547 deaths and 9,058,687 cumulative cases of infection, with a 4.3% rate of infection—also frightening, but not nearly as dramatic as the above quilombola stats). Almost all of these numbers are sure to be undercounts, especially in rural parts of the country, such as where many quilombolas reside, independent of historical and racial motivations for exclusion as well. (As further evidence, only 630,596 COVID-19 tests have been performed in total—including individuals who’ve been tested multiple times—for a state population above 8 million.)

As a means to protect their territories and ensure access to healthcare, quilombola communities in Pará are demanding COVID-19 testing and PPE from local health officials. Jambuaçu in the northeastern part of the state is one such example.

“Along with the organization MALUNGU and all the quilombolas in the municipality…[we started] the movement so that we would get tested, so that the test against COVID-19 would be carried out, that the municipality might provide the test, masks, hand sanitizer,” says Guiomar.

According to her, the response form the Mojú local government, where Jambuaçu is located, was to send them a van to facilitate people getting tested. Guiomar notes a particular irony: “In the midst of the pandemic the health recommendations are to socially distance, so how is sending a bus to fetch people for a COVID-19 test going to help that? The majority of the communities didn’t accept this! Because there was a risk of getting infected, whether you got a test or didn’t.”

Without knowing whether or not they were infected, people watched entire communities recover from fever, cough and shortness of breath. Without a test or help, they took care of the ill themselves by themselves. Unfortunately, the situation is similar to the various quilombola communities throughout the Amazon region. It is likely to be even more dramatic because coronavirus cases in the Amazon region have increased significantly with the identification of a new variant in Amazonas State; overworked hospitals without beds; and entire health systems in a state of collapse. In Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, a lack of hospital oxygen supply reached a crisis point: from January 14-15, 31 people died from a shortage of the life-giving gas, according to documents obtained by the Public Prosecutor’s Office[4].

In yet another chapter of their fight to have their human rights respected, quilombola communities struggle now to be amongst the first groups in line to be vaccinated against coronavirus. However, it should be remembered that these populations were not included in the clinical trials[5] of vaccines being applied today, which means that there is no certainty as to how vaccines will work in this group and the actual effectiveness of the vaccine that is being widely used.

The federal government’s vaccination schedule lists quilombolas in its first phase, together with education professionals, essential workers, and individuals experiencing homelessness. Nevertheless, according to researchers studying the situation of quilombolas in the Amazon alongside the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (ABRASCO)[6], a population that has experienced centuries of vulnerability should be some of the first in line to be immunized.

The Bolsonaro government argues that it didn’t prioritize quilombolas in the first immunization groups due to planning difficulties, but no sociodemographic data nor epidemiological sources exist to back these claims—an inherent catch-22. So, what actions on the part of the government do exist so as to improve this grim scenario? Unfortunately, the current response does not provide much hope. According to plans for the next federal census (postponed from its original 2020 startdate), “Updated data about the contingencies of this population will be recognized.”

Much of the burden then falls upon state and municipal contingency plans for treating the surge in coronavirus cases amongst quilombolas. The current lack of support from these quarters, in part because federal coordination has been lacking and in part because this population been historically marginalized and rendered invisible, highlights its pre-existing vulnerabilities. The dictum seems to be that one can’t treat what doesn’t “exist.”

As Mario Santos, who lives in one seemingly bucolic quilombola community nevertheless surrounded by another health threat—that of contamination posed by nearby mineral processing industries—in Barcarena, Pará, observes, “The intention is to make us invisible as quilombolas, so they didn’t make a plan that should have been made [from the beginning]: a plan to combat COVID-19 for the quilombolas.”

The quilombola activist Raimundo Magno preparing a meal of fruits (wearing a mask and socially distancing). Credit: Cícero Pedrosa Neto.

Raimundo Magno is even more unsparing, hinting about the vaccine campaign on the horizon: “The government has never bothered to gather real data on quilombola populations and today COVID-19 and the vaccine surfaced as a glaring reality. The absence of these data has a completely negative impact because we do not know the exact number [of infections]. The calculation that needs to be done has not been completed in order to make available the doses in a quantity to reach all the quilombolas.”











Authors’ Biosketch

Click on each image to learn more about each author

Adriana Abreu, Amazon RJF Grantee, @abreu_cs
Sam Schramski, Amazon RJF Grantee, @samschramski
Cícero Pedrosa Neto, Amazon RJF Grantee, @CiceroPedrosa