CARAUARI, BRAZIL (AFP) – Deep in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil, where rivers are the only highways, the coronavirus pandemic is sharply limiting boat traffic, leaving villages even more cut off from the world than before.
Canoes, motor boats and ferries are the cars, trucks and buses of the Amazon, bringing people and goods to remote communities that can only be reached by river – sometimes with a journey of more than a week.
But because of the pandemic, authorities in Amazonas state have restricted river traffic to essential travel, seeking to stop the spread of the virus in a region that could be particularly vulnerable to it.
Cargo transport is operating normally, but passenger transport is restricted to exceptional circumstances such as medical emergencies and essential services like paramedics and police, said Jerfeson Caldas, regional coordinator for national health agency Anvisa. Even those trips are bound by special rules: boats can only operate at 40 per cent of their passenger capacity, and must supply water, soap and hand sanitiser.
The restrictions amount to the jungle equivalent of the isolation measures now in place for around half the world’s population.
“Amazonas depends on rivers for more than 85 per cent of the transport we survive on. Unfortunately, people here are now living a sad reality because of this crisis,” said Alessandra Martins Pontes, a transportation planning expert at Amazonas Federal University.
Passengers usually make the trip on “regionals,” big diesel-engine ferries that replaced the steam-powered paddle boats of the 19th Century.
Travellers typically sleep on hammocks they bring themselves, slung one above the other like bunk beds.
But not in the time of COVID-19. The authorities have ordered all hammocks be placed a minimum of two metres apart.
Amazonas is the biggest state in Brazil, a densely forested expanse of more than 1.5 million square kilometres, equal to about the size of Peru and Ecuador combined.
It has registered 532 cases of the new coronavirus so far – mostly in the state capital, Manaus – with 19 deaths.
The fear is what will happen if the virus progresses into the rainforest, particularly the indigenous communities that live there.
Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to imported diseases, as they have been historically isolated from germs against which much of the world has developed immunity.
Remote indigenous communities have been decimated in the past by diseases including smallpox and flu.
Authorities reported last week that a first indigenous woman had tested positive for the new coronavirus in Amazonas, a health worker from the Kokama ethnic group who came into contact with an infected doctor.
The transport restrictions affect hundreds of families, indigenous or not, that live from fishing and gathering in stilt-house villages along the Amazon and its tributaries.
“Movement is very limited now. Outsiders can’t even go to the protected nature reserves” where most of those families live, said Edervan Vieira, a technical adviser to an association of farmers and fishermen in Carauari, a week’s trip upriver by boat from Manaus.
No COVID-19 cases have been reported here yet.
But he said he worries about the economic effects of the transport restrictions on families that depend on sales of their surplus produce to buy whatever they cannot make locally. “We have what we need to survive here: fruit, fish, cassava flour,” said Maria Cunha, 26, who lives in the protected nature reserve of Medio Jurua.
“But living in the forest also brings its challenges…. What worries us is if we have to go to the city for an emergency, because that’s when we would risk bringing the virus back home.”