Deaths of Yanomami babies from COVID-19 bring anguish to mothers


  • Three indigenous babies from the Yanomami Indigenous group who died with suspected COVID-19 infection were buried in a cemetery in the city of Boa Vista, in Brazil’s Roraima state, far from their villages.
  • Their mothers don’t speak Portuguese and likely had no understanding of what would happen to their children’s bodies.
  • It is a Yanomami tradition to cremate their dead, and the ritual can take more than a year to complete.
  • Indigenous people are now reluctant to seek medical treatment for fear that their bodies will not be returned to the community if they die. A local NGO says the handling of the case shows continued disrespect for Indigenous culture.

The recent deaths of four Indigenous Yanomami babies and subsequent disappearance of their bodies from a hospital in Brazil have revealed yet another hardship in the way the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Indigenous communities.

Three of the bodies were buried in a cemetery in the city of Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state. All three died with suspected COVID-19 infection. The fourth baby also died but tested negative for the virus and was not buried. That means the body will almost certainly be sent back to the Yanomami indigenous reserve.

The case, centering on the forced separation of the children from their mothers, has sparked anguish, especially the notion that a mother could ever be at peace when the body of her child was missing. For the Yanomami, the pain is even greater.

One of the mothers, from the Sanöma subgroup of the Yanomami, sent a message in her native tongue to the journalist who broke the story for the newspaper El País in late June. She wrote: “I suffered to have this child. And I’m suffering now. My people are suffering. I need to bring my son’s body to the village. I can’t go back without my son’s body.”

According to Moreno Saraiva, an anthropologist from the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), an organization based in São Paulo, funeral rituals have an essential role in Yanomami culture. “The body is always cremated and the ritual can take years to complete. Only then can that person move on to the other plane without being remembered here,” he said.

But the way authorities have handled this case means the ritual can’t be performed for the dead children. With the threat of coronavirus, there’s a real danger in transporting infected corpses back to the village and putting the Indigenous community at risk. “There could be a possible solution, like cremating them outside the village and later delivering the ashes. But there was a failure to do the very basic, to dialogue, to talk to this population and find solutions,” Saraiva said.

Communication is key to avoiding similar situations. Because they don’t speak Portuguese, the mothers likely had no understanding of what would happen to their children’s bodies. In a statement, the Ministry of Health said they were “properly informed about funeral procedures.” But this doesn’t rule out that they understood the information and what was to take place from that point on. “It is positive that the bodies have been located, but it is necessary to have clear protocols in place in the event of another death,” Saraiva said.

Yanomami mothers and their babies in a Sanöma community, in Yanonami Indigenous Land. Image by Alejandro Zambrana/Sesai.

According to Saraiva, an ISA survey shows the majority of Brazilian society is in favor of cultural diversity but with Indigenous people kept at a distance, in the Amazon, far from urban centers. The contact of physical proximity, in day-to-day life, reveals this prejudice, he said. “This case of the babies reflects the practical consequence of the lack of respect for indigenous peoples,” he said.

Indigenous people are now afraid to seek medical treatment for fear that their bodies will not be returned to the community in the event that they die. “We have reached the limit of incomprehension on the part of the Brazilian state, an attitude that can kill people. A good solution needs to be negotiated together with indigenous peoples,” Saraiva said.

In the wake of the Yanomami children’s case, the federal government carried out an inter-ministerial action through FUNAI, the agency for Indigenous affairs; the Department of Indigenous Health; and the Ministry of Defense in the territories of Roraima. The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) will be investigating these operations after having received complaints about the “distribution of chloroquine to Indigenous communities” and “entry into the territories without previously consulting with the peoples.”

According to the MPF, these operations “did not respect the guidelines set in the emergency plan, such as the establishment of inter-institutional teams at strategic points of the Indigenous land, formed by control forces, as well as measures to ensure that risks of contamination are not accentuated, such as the prior quarantine of teams and physical distancing from the indigenous populations.”

This story was originally published in Portuguese on Veja.

Banner image of a group of Yanomami women waiting for health assistance in a Sanöma community, in Yanonami Indigenous Land. Image by Alejandro Zambrana/Sesai. 

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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