Coronavirus (958) How COVID-19 is demanding a new look at Indigenous healing in the Amazon

30 August, 2020

Extracts and a comment from me below. Full text here:


How COVID-19 is demanding a new look at Indigenous healing in the Amazon

Indigenous peoples have had to organise themselves so that they can address the pandemic with their own resources.

In Latin America, the still-raging coronavirus pandemic is leading to a reassessment of the use of traditional medicine and highlighting the urgent need for humanitarian aid and health workers to better integrate Indigenous knowledge into their responses.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the region, amongst the hardest hit communities have been the Indigenous peoples, long neglected by the state and with the lowest access to quality healthcare...

Many people, however, share traditional remedies that often include ginger, honey, garlic, and lemon, along with a variety of plants that can be found in forests and garden plots in communities...

When people began falling ill in her neighbourhood on the outskirts of Iquitos, Canaquiri went to the woods, where she has a small garden, and gathered medicinal plants. She and her neighbours treated themselves with a combination of traditional remedies and acetaminophen, a conventional drug commonly used for the treatment of pain and fever. They suffered, but only one woman – whose case was complicated by diabetes – died, she said.

Foreseeing that the virus would eventually reach villages along Amazonian rivers, Canaquiri, who is a member of the Kukama people, called relatives in Shaparilla, her home community, to describe the remedies she had prepared. Nearly everyone in the village of about 200 people fell ill, but no one died.

“At first, people are frightened and desperate,” she said. “But then they see you using plants and getting better. Now, they’re no longer afraid. They know how to treat themselves.”...

“For Indigenous people, traditional medicine is most important, and Western medicine is complementary,” Luis Gutiérrez, a paediatrician and expert on intercultural health who works as a consultant in Peru, told TNH...

“The messages developed by experts, anthropologists, and sociologists, and translated into Indigenous languages are done with good intentions, but do not necessarily have good results.”...

Teamwork is essential, the Indigenous nurse added. “Working in Indigenous communities requires collective work involving everyone, [including] those who maintain ancestral knowledge, because their knowledge goes back thousands of years and has a very great advantage. Working together is a huge win for the people.”


COMMENT (NPW): This news feature illustrates several challenges when seeking to bridge Western with traditional medicine. What aspects of traditional medicine should be priortitised and for which diseases? Prevailing beliefs will also impact on health behaviours. Public health professionals have long distanced themselves from traditional healers, but increasingly it is recognised that - although the effectiveness of their treatments may sometimes be questionable - their sociocultural states and skills can potentially contribute to positive outcomes (as we have seen with the Lancet article on the role of traditional and faith healers, circulated earlier today). On the other hand, a sceptic might argue that any health issue that cannot currently be adequately addressed with Western medicine (such as COVID) will inevitably lead to a panoply of ineffective traditional 'cures'.

Best wishes, Neil

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - ), a global community with more than 19,000 members in 177 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: