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A young indigenous man applies body paint as he checks himself out in a mirror, during an annual three-day campout protest known as the Free Land Encampment, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. The event begins amid animosity between Brazil’s indigenous groups and the new government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
Eraldo Peres/AP
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COVID-19: Oprah, Meryl Streep, and More Sign Open Letter Warning of Indigenous 'Genocide' in Brazil

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating inequalities around the world by causing the most harm to people living in poverty and the margins of society. The United Nations urges countries to take extra steps to protect these communities. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Indigenous communities throughout Brazil are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and need urgent protection, according to an open letter signed by more than 170,000 people, including Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, and Brad Pitt. 

The letter, written by the photojournalist Sebastião Salgado through the nonprofit Avaaz, warns that Indigenous people could experience "genocide" if the virus takes hold and begins to spread throughout their communities. The letter compares the threat of coronavirus to other infectious diseases, such as measles, that have ravaged Indigenous groups throughout history.

"Five centuries ago, these ethnic groups were decimated by diseases brought by European colonizers," the letter states. "Now, with this new scourge spreading rapidly across Brazil … [they] may disappear completely since they have no means of combating COVID-19."

Brazil has become one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 102,000 infected and 7,051 killed by the virus. Critics of President Jair Bolsonaro argue that he’s worsening the crisis by downplaying the severity of the virus and encouraging citizens to ignore social distancing measures. 

The virus poses a particular risk to Indigenous communities largely because they often lack access to quality health care, according to Mongabay. Community health centers throughout the Amazon rainforest are often understaffed and have few resources, Mongabay also reported. 

Many Indigenous communities in the Amazon are "uncontacted," meaning they have little to no connection to the outside world. If the coronavirus spreads in these tight-knit communities, many people may be unable to receive the critical care needed to survive. Salgado warns that the virus could lead to the "extinction" of Brazil’s Indigenous populations.

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"When you endorse or encourage an act that you know will eliminate a population or part of a population, this is the definition of genocide," Salgado told the Guardian. "[It will be] genocide because we know this is going to happen, we are facilitating ... the entry of coronavirus ... [and therefore] permission is being given for the death of these Indigenous people."

To make matters worse, the letter points to the ongoing land grabs, violent attacks, and forced displacement happening throughout the Amazon. In recent years, deforestation has surged in the forest, a problem accelerated by the pandemic, as enforcement agencies have been unable to conduct raids. 

The Brazilian government recently announced that it will deploy troops to shield protected Indigenous lands from illegal logging, agrobusiness, and mining expeditions.