Peru's Indigenous turn to ancestral remedies to fight virus

Full Screen
1 / 23

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Family members look in the coffin that contains the remains of Manuela Chavez who died from symptoms related to the new coronavirus at the age of 88, during a burial service in the Shipibo Indigenous community of Pucallpa, in Peru's Ucayali region, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. The Shipibo have tried to prevent COVID-19's entrance by blocking off roads and isolating themselves. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

PUCALLPA – As COVID-19 spread quickly through Peru’s Amazon, the Indigenous Shipibo community decided to turn to the wisdom of their ancestors.

Hospitals were far away, short on doctors and running out of beds. Even if they could get in, many of the ill were too fearful to go, convinced that stepping foot in a hospital would only lead to death.

So Mery Fasabi gathered herbs, steeped them in boiling water and instructed her loved ones to breathe in the vapors. She also made syrups of onion and ginger to help clear congested airways.

“We had knowledge about these plants, but we didn’t know if they’d really help treat COVID,” the teacher said. “With the pandemic we are discovering new things.”

The coronavirus pandemic’s ruthless march through Peru — the country with the world’s highest per-population confirmed COVID-19 mortality rate — has compelled many Indigenous groups to find their own remedies. Decades of under-investment in public health care, combined with skepticism of modern medicine, mean many are not getting standard treatments like oxygen therapy to treat severe virus cases.

In the Ucayali region, government rapid response teams deployed to a handful of Indigenous communities have found infection rates as high as 80% through antibody testing. Food and medicine donations have reached only a fraction of the population. Many say the only state presence they have seen is from a group responsible for collecting bodies of the dead.

At a spot known as “Kilometer 20” near the city of Pucallpa, a new cemetery has sprung to life with the remains of about 400 people.

“We’ve always been forgotten,” said Roberto Wikleff, 49, a Shipibo man who turned to Fasabi’s treatments to help treat his COVID-19. “We don’t exist for them.”