SÃO PAULO – Indigenous people in Brazil are facing obstacles to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, despite being considered a priority group.

Brazil began COVID-19 vaccinations on Jan. 17, and the bishops’ conference’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) has been campaigning to guarantee full access to the vaccine for the country’s indigenous peoples.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the seriousness of the disease and the need for widespread vaccinations. While his administration failed to quickly secure a vaccine for Brazilians, São Paulo State governor João Dória Jr. – a potential opponent for Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential election – made a deal with the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech to obtain the first 6 million doses for the country.

Bolsonaro then tried to discredit the effectiveness of Sinovac’s Coronavac and other companies’ vaccines. Various social media campaigns were launched by Bolsonaro supporters and others about the alleged risks and low efficacy of the vaccines. Between August and December of 2020, the portion of the population which didn’t want to take a vaccine jumped from 9 percent to 22 percent, mostly among Bolsonaro’s supporters.

Now that his administration’s vaccination program started to include Coronavac and AstraZeneca’s vaccine – Brazil received 2 million doses of it from India last week – many people are still hesitant to take get vaccinated, including members of indigenous groups.

“We’ve been seeing a certain resistance to the vaccine among a few indigenous groups, which suffered the impact of the federal government’s campaign,” CIMI’s Executive Secretary Antônio Cerqueira de Oliveira told Crux.

De Oliveira explained that the problem is made worse by the presence of Neo-Pentecostal preachers in the villages.

“Cases have been reported to us in which members of such churches tried to convince indigenous people to refuse the vaccine,” he explained.

Evangelical Protestants are one of Bolsonaro’s most important bases of political support.

The Marubo people, who lives in the valley of the River Javari in the Amazonian States of Acre and Amazonas, was one of the groups affected by a wave of fake news against the vaccine.

“Unfortunately, Evangelical missionaries have played an irresponsible role in the south of the Javari valley, recommending the boycott to the vaccination program. This led two Marubo villages to refuse to take the vaccine,” indigenous leader Beto Marubo told Crux.

He said that it took a great effort to raise awareness among the members of such villages before they would finally allow themselves to be vaccinated.

In Paraná State, in the southern part of Brazil, CIMI missionary Osmarina de Oliveira faced the same problem with members of the Guarani people.

“False information about people who allegedly died after taking the vaccine in Argentina and Paraguay were disseminated on social media and many people got worried. Some local indigenous chiefs had informed us that their communities wouldn’t be vaccinated,” she told Crux.

Part of the 25 Guarani villages in the west of Paraná have residents attending Evangelical missions. But the greatest impact, according to Osmarina de Oliveira, was caused by Bolsonaro’s speeches attacking the vaccine.

“They told me that if the president himself was criticizing the vaccine and saying that he wouldn’t take it, they wouldn’t take it either,” she said.

Their inclusion in the priority group was also received with suspicion.

“They didn’t want to be the guinea pig. We told them that they are always among the first groups to get a vaccine, the same way they always did in past programs,” she said.

Osmarina de Oliveira and members of other civic organizations organized talks with the region’s indigenous leaders and brought a physician to answer their questions.

Some of them asked to perform a ritual prayer with the vaccines and then agreed to take a shot.

The lack of information has been one of the biggest problems of the vaccination campaign, said Roberto Liebgott, the CIMI coordinator in the south of Brazil.

“There weren’t previous talks and consultations with the indigenous groups. This generates doubts and mistrust among them, opening the door to fake news,” he told Crux.

According to Liebgott, another major issue is the exclusion of indigenous people who live in cities from the priority group. When the Healthcare Minister Gen. Eduardo Pazuello announced the immunization program last week, he said that only indigenous peoples living in villages and reservations would qualify as a member of the priority group.

“Out of the reserves, indigenous persons and communities will be vaccinated according to the general schedule of health condition and age,” Libegott said.

“In cities where the mayor is sympathetic with the indigenous cause, they’re being vaccinated. Where the mayor opposes the struggle for their rights, they’ve been put aside,” he added.

Antônio de Oliveira said that almost half of the 900,000 indigenous Brazilians live in cities. In large Amazonian cities like Manaus, there have been many COVID-19 cases among indigenous persons living in the poverty-stricken outskirts of the city.

“Many of them died and were buried without being identified as members of indigenous groups. The deaths of indigenous people in the cities have been underreported,” he said.

CIMI released a statement condemning Bolsonaro’s policy for the indigenous peoples’ vaccination and demanding that all of members of the indigenous population receive the shots immediately, no matter where they live. According to Liebgott, Bolsonaro intends to restrict the indigenous’ rights and avoid responsibility for them.

“This measure is a sign of his administration’s desire to make public policies for the indigenous peoples unfeasible, thus consolidating his integrationist perspective, that is, the idea that the indigenous population should be inserted in the surrounding society, even against their will,” he said.

Marubo said the distinction between urban and village indigenous persons is one of the Bolsonaro administration’s strategies to create social conflict.

“He wants to generate a sentiment of unfairness among the non-indigenous population. Cases of people questioning the inclusion of the ‘lazy’ and ‘indolent’ indigenous people in the priority group have been reported in some parts of the country,” he said.

Throughout Brazil, several indigenous groups hope that the government will change its policy and include the indigenous living in the cities in the first stage of the vaccination program.

“We already started to be vaccinated in the River Negro. Everybody is excited to get a shot, but we hope that the vaccines arrive to all communities and to our relatives in the cities. We know they’re not part of the priority group, but we’ve been demanding their inclusion,” Marivelton Barroso, president of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of River Negro, in Amazonas State, told Crux.

Olívio Jekupé, a Guarani writer who lives in an indigenous village in the outskirts of São Paulo, considered the government’s attitude “disrespectful.”

“Many of us go to the city to study and work. In São Paulo, there are members of nations from all parts of the country. They have to be equally respected,” he told Crux.

Jekupé, who has published 21 books with traditional indigenous stories for kids, lamented the fact he had to be confined in the village since the beginning of 2020, missing the opportunity to talk about his work in schools and literary events.

“We understand the importance of social distancing to end this pandemic. The vaccine is also a great solution. We have to struggle against the dissemination of fake news and trust the scientists who are working against the virus,” he said.