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An Amazonian man surveys the swollen river. Daniel Tregidgo, Author provided

The worst time for a pandemic – how coronavirus and seasonal floods are causing hunger in the remote Amazon

To slow the spread of COVID-19, a third of the global population is in lockdown. While major cities are swamped with cases, isolated ocean islands are among the last places on the planet free from the disease. Isolation, it seems, helps during a pandemic.

Or does it? Millions of people live in isolated Amazonian towns and villages that are only accessible by boat or plane. Many of these towns are a few days’ boat ride from the nearest major city, and some of the villages are another few days’ boat ride from the nearest town.

And despite surviving the early part of the pandemic without many cases, the Brazilian Amazon is now experiencing a major COVID-19 outbreak. The healthcare system of its largest city – Manaus – collapsed just three weeks after its first confirmed case, and the city is now being forced to bury many of its victims in mass graves. By now, even some of the most isolated Amazonians are being infected.

Local officials dig a mass grave for people who died due to COVID-19 in the city of Manaus, April 28 2020. EPA-EFE/RAPHAEL ALVES

Stay home or feed your family

Amazonia’s intensive care units are only found in its major cities, which can be well over 1,000km from some towns – about the same distance as London to Barcelona.

To prevent the further spread of COVID-19, many Amazonians are trying to increase their isolation. Some indigenous groups are making camps deeper in the forest. Other villages and even whole cities have declared themselves closed to the world.

A sign in the Amanã Reserve reads: ‘The coronavirus (COVID-19) doesn’t circulate on its own. It’s people that make it circulate. Stay in your community’ and ‘Do not disembark! We thank you for your understanding. #Stay at home’. Paulo Araújo, Author provided

Rural Amazonians still rely on visiting local towns to buy food, trade and receive salaries and welfare payments. This presents a wicked problem – stay home to avoid COVID-19 or feed your family.

The effect in poorer regions, where hunger and malnutrition are already common, is predicted to be catastrophic. Experts predict that malnutrition caused by the pandemic will leave an extra seven million children stunted.

Our research shows that remote Amazonian municipalities tend to have poor public services, deep poverty and high food prices already. Traditional river-dwelling populations face much of this alone, largely invisible in Brazilian society.

We also found that even during normal times, most households in remote Amazonian communities have trouble feeding themselves, and most children under five are anaemic.

River-dwelling communities are among the poorest and most isolated in Brazil. Daniel Tregidgo, Author provided

Can nature provide?

Amazonia is exceptionally rich in natural resources. Rivers and forests are likely to be providing some natural insurance against hunger.

But the availability of natural resources varies throughout the year. Immense seasonal floods allow fish to disperse across the flooded forest for months every year, peaking around April to July - coinciding with the timing of the pandemic. Our latest research showed this makes fish much harder to catch, meaning many families struggle to eat enough food during the high water season. A third of rural households skip meals, and the chance of not eating for a whole day increases four-fold when compared with the low water season.

Read more: How indigenous people in the Amazon are coping with the coronavirus pandemic

People living on the floodplain can’t easily switch from fishing to farming because the swollen rivers flood virtually all land in many areas, sometimes for hundreds of kilometres. Rural households rely on supplementing what they can catch or grow with food they buy in local towns. That means queuing at the bank, stopping by the market and heading home, potentially bringing the virus with you.

The high water season is always a struggle for Amazonian families trying to feed themselves. Daniel Tregidgo, Author provided

COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown has arrived at a really bad time, as rising river levels exacerbate existing hunger, forcing many people to choose between limiting their exposure and that of their community to the virus, and eating.

The Brazilian government’s recent emergency stipend aims to protect vulnerable citizens, such as informal workers, from the impacts of the pandemic. This might help, but its benefits could be offset by increasing food prices in remote areas, which our contacts across the Amazon have already reported. There are no obvious solutions, but they must involve helping people have a nutritious diet while being able to avoid neighbouring towns and cities.

Acting quickly will be vital for the health and wellbeing of Amazonian river-dwellers. Childhood malnutrition has lifelong consequences.

After the pandemic has passed, there must be significant investment in reducing poverty. That will enable people to better weather shocks like COVID-19. But poverty must be tackled not just in terms of income. Improving sanitation and access to clean water and healthcare is also vital. With intestinal infections and preventable diseases such as malaria so common in rural areas, even the most nutritious diet might not stop malnourishment.

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