A Challenge in the Peruvian Amazon: To Stop Spreading COVID, Spread COVID Information Instead


This article was published on the Rainforest US website on 5/19/21. It has been edited to fit this format.

On the heels of a recent survey of indigenous communities in Peru revealing widespread unfamiliarity with COVID-19 and widespread hesitancy about the vaccine, Rainforest Foundation US (RFUS) has teamed up with representative indigenous partner organizations on a multilingual COVID-19 awareness campaign.

The campaign, which will be run in eight indigenous languages as well as Spanish, will consist of broadcasts, podcasts, and infographic comics, and will be distributed throughout 123 rainforest-dense departments of Loreto and Ucayali.

The campaign is the latest iteration of RFUS’s COVID relief effort in Peru, which began in early 2020, and was launched with the help of the Center for Information and Education about the Prevention of Drug Abuse (CEDRO) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

If our recent survey results are an indicator, the campaign is sorely needed. [The] survey shows how unaware of COVID-19 many in these communities remain. In the starkest of terms: A large majority of the indigenous people we surveyed can’t identify the virus’s symptoms, don’t know how to curb its spread, and don’t trust the vaccine.

The lack of information isn’t due to indigenous obstinance, but rather to a failure of the Peruvian government’s public information priorities, says Katya Zevallos of the Indigenous People’s Organization of the Eastern Amazon (ORPIO), one of our partner organizations on the campaign.

“The government of Peru has spent a lot of money to provide people with information about COVID-19. But only one sector of the population: the ones that have internet, smartphones, cell phone service,” Zevallos says.

Too often, indigenous communities have been left in the dark. And looking at Peru’s pandemic numbers, that informational failure could lead to disaster imminently.


Because of the lack of information, there’s a lack of basic COVID safety measures amongst indigenous peoples that over the last year have become commonplace elsewhere. Meanwhile, the pandemic in Peru has worsened. Fueled by the P.1 variant first discovered in Brazil, a deadly second wave has kept case numbers high, while vaccine distribution crawls. As of press time, Peru’s fully vaccinated population was only 2.2%—magnitudes behind the United States and Europe. For Peru’s indigenous Amazon population—many of whom are far removed from the health care available in cities—the potential for catastrophe is undeniable.

The Ministry of Health recently announced plans to send tens of thousands of AstraZeneca doses to indigenous Amazonian communities. But our survey suggests that vaccine hesitancy could blunt the effectiveness of that aide. Of the community members surveyed, 66.2% said they did not want to receive the vaccine.

Gregorio Mirabal, Coordinator of the Congress of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), an umbrella organization of indigenous rights in the Amazon Basin, spoke impassionedly about the lack of governmental outreach at a press conference last Tuesday on the survey results.

“We’re asking for a plan about prevention and vaccination,” Mirabal said. “Where is the plan? Where’s the dialogue? Where’s the differentiated approach to indigenous communities?”  


Our campaign for greater COVID-19 awareness will be done in partnership with the indigenous-led organizations ORPIO and the Regional Organization of AIDESEP in Ucayali (ORAU). Slated to roll out in early June, it’ll feature a series of radio spots, podcasts, and twelve comic-style infographics. The graphics will be blown up onto banners for display in public spaces and compiled into a calendar: one infographic per month.

The calendars are an attempt to meet indigenous communities where their interests are, explains RFUS’s Country Director for Peru, Tom Bewick, who adds that “In most indigenous houses, there’s not that much on the wall—but you almost always see that calendar.”

The messages contained therein will be likewise directly reflective of survey results. 

The entire campaign aspires to hone in on both indigenous preferences and their knowledge gaps while dispensing public health information. To better do that, we’re also working with indigenous health promoters and other indigenous leaders, who will serve as valuable interlocutors to communities historically wary of outsiders.

“Clean hands against COVID-19” is one of several infographics produced by ORPIO and RFUS for use in the campaign.

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