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COVID-19: the powerful image of the young indigenous man from an isolated tribe who carried his father for 6 hours to be vaccinated

A photograph of an indigenous person carrying his father on his back to go to get vaccinated against it. COVID-19 drew the attention of thousands of people in Brazil on social media.

The picture shows Tawy Zó’é, 24, struggling to carry Wahu Zó’é, 67.

The young man walked for hours in the woods, along a road with hills, streams and other obstacles until reaching the base of the health team in the region.

The scene moved the doctor Erik Jennings Simões, who recorded the moment in a photograph. For the health professional, the commitment of the indigenous young man to immunize his father was one of the most remarkable moments he witnessed in 2021.

The registration was carried out in January 2021, at the beginning of the vaccination against COVID-19 in the country. However, the doctor only shared it on social media last week, almost a year later.

I wanted to send a positive message at the beginning of the year“, the doctor told Vinícius Lemos, a journalist for BBC News Brasil.

“It was also a way of trying to send a message from the Zó’é people, because they always ask if whites are getting vaccinated and if COVID-19 is over,” Erik adds.

The Zó’é indigenous people live on some 669,000 hectares in the state of Pará, in northern Brazil, near the Amazon River, in an area of ​​forest considered highly preserved and with enormous biodiversity.

According to health agents working in the region, the Zó’é population is made up of some 325 indigenous people who live scattered throughout the territory in more than 50 villages. Throughout the year, they usually move to different places in the area where they live.

They are considered a people with recent external contact, usually only through the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai) or the National Indigenous Foundation (Funai).

Impact of the pandemic on indigenous communities

Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to official data, the town has not registered any case of COVID-19.

It is a different reality from the general context of the pandemic among indigenous people throughout the country.

According to the most recent data from Sesai, since March 2020 there have been 57,100 cases of COVID-19 among indigenous people in Brazil and 853 deaths from the disease.

Indigenous entities, on the other hand, point out that the Sesai data is limited as they only include indigenous people in villages.

The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) conducted its own survey on the subject and noted that the country reached the 1,000 indigenous people killed by the disease caused by the new coronavirus in March 2021.

Tactics to face the pandemic

Erik, 52, has been the doctor in charge of the Zó’é people for almost two decades. She works alongside a team of nursing technicians, nurses, and dentists, who arrive at the site by plane and provide care in a base created within the indigenous area.

At the beginning of the pandemic, according to the doctor, the Zó’é people created a strategy to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in their area.

“They were divided into groups of approximately 18 families, isolated in the most remote villages and avoiding any type of contact with the health team,” explains the doctor.

“They adopted a strategy of not crossing each other and avoided the approach with the whites. It is an ancient tactic to avoid a pandemic, decided and initiated by themselves“, Add.

According to him, there are numerous trails throughout the forest area and only the indigenous people know how to travel them and prevent groups from crossing each other.

When vaccination against COVID-19 began in the country, indigenous people were considered priority groups.

For the health team that accompanies the Zó’é people, a challenge was posed: how to immunize this population, minimizing the possibility of infection by the coronavirus.

Even with team members testing negative for COVID-19, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and partially vaccinated, health professionals decided to discuss with indigenous people the safest way to administer immunization.

A technical evaluation noted that it would be unfeasible for the health team to go to each village to apply the first dose. This is because they analyzed that it would take weeks to vaccinate everyone, due to displacement in the region.

“In addition, we would have to walk with heavy protective equipment in the forest and we would need the company of the Zo’é people to guide us. That would increase contact with indigenous people and the possibility of contamination, precisely what they were avoiding,” says the doctor.

Village health team to vaccinate indigenous people.  (Photo: SESAI / Ministry of Health)

The team would also need to sleep in the villages, due to the long distances in the region, increasing the risks of possible contagion by COVID-19.

It was decided that the team would use three cabins near the health base, in open and airy places. No indigenous slept in the place and each family was vaccinated separately.

Upon arrival at the immunization site, each indigenous person was responsible for walking through the forest to avoid encountering other groups of people.

On January 22, 2021, it was Wahu and Tawy’s turn to receive the first dose of the vaccine. According to the doctor, father and son have always had an intense relationship of love and respect.

A common action of young people, even before the pandemic, was to carry their father in a kind of jamanxim, a form of backpack or basket made by the indigenous people.

“The father (Wahu) had poor eyesight, could hardly see anything anymore and also had a severe chronic urinary tract problem. As a result, he was almost completely unable to walk in the forest“, says Erik.

“Then, what was going to work there was to carry the parents on the back. That is what works in the forest, because there is no ambulance or other means of transportation, “he adds.

The arrival of the son carrying his father on his back moved Erik and the other health professionals. “It was a very beautiful scene, of the love relationship between them,” says the doctor. Erik estimates that father and son it took five to six hours through the forest to reach the immunization site.

Shortly after being vaccinated, Tawy put his father back on his back and headed into the woods. He said it couldn’t take long, since he had to get to town before dark.

As father and son were leaving the medical base, Erik took the photograph.

“I wanted to register it because it was a very beautiful scene and because it shows the concern about getting vaccinated. In addition, the image illustrates the strategy adopted by combining the knowledge of the population with ours in order to avoid COVID-19 among the Zo’é people ”, says the doctor.


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