On the outskirts of some small indigenous communities in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, a few volunteer guards keep watch along roads blocked by makeshift barricades of chains, stones and timber.
The invader they are trying to stop is COVID-19.
For many indigenous peoples of Mexico, poor and ignored by state and federal governments, the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is mostly on their own, said Jeffrey Cohen, anthropology professor at Ohio. State University.
This means that they have to take measures like limiting access to their villages.
“Most of these communities only have one road to go back and forth,” Cohen said. “So these guards, called topiles, are blocking that road so foreigners with the virus can’t get in – and locals won’t go to a nearby town and bring back the virus.
Cohen spent years in the central valleys of Oaxaca conducting anthropological research among the Zapotec people.
In the newspaper Global public health, Cohen recently co-wrote an article on how the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca are dealing with the pandemic. Its co-author is Nydia Delhi Mata-Sánchez, his former student and now rector of the Universidad Tecnológica de los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca.
Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country and is home to many indigenous minority groups, including the Zapotecs. It is also one of the poorest states in the country. The Mexican government estimates that nearly 70% of the country’s indigenous population live in poverty.
Most of Oaxacan’s indigenous communities are small and isolated, which has kept them comparatively less exposed to the coronavirus than the rest of Mexico.
About two-thirds of Oaxaca’s roughly 500 indigenous and rural communities had no cases of COVID-19 when Cohen and Mata-Sanchez researched for this article in the early months of the pandemic. Today, about a third still have no cases, Cohen said.
But as the virus has infiltrated their villages, the Zapotecs and other indigenous peoples are finding ways to cope with the pandemic. The first is to set territorial boundaries such as roadblocks.
In addition, village chiefs encourage social distancing and the use of masks. While these measures have become a political issue in many parts of Mexico, such as the United States, it is not a problem for most indigenous communities.
“One of the strengths of these local leaders is that they have a more traditional form of leadership that is not based on political affiliations,” Cohen said.
“Village chiefs are generally respected by the population and they are listened to when they promote health measures such as wearing a mask and social distancing.”
In addition, villagers are rethinking their eating habits and turning to traditional food sources that had lost popularity in recent years as locals went to food markets in big cities for more modern dishes.
For example, the villagers collect wild honey, as they did more often in the past. And many have resumed eating “chapulines”, grasshoppers collected in the fields and quickly roasted over a fire.
“It’s a high protein alternative to expensive store-bought meats that are no longer available locally,” Cohen said.
“These are the types of foods that never completely went away, but were less popular, especially among young people who viewed these foods as foods their grandparents ate.
But what may be the most important key to how the Zapotecs cope with the pandemic is strengthening the tradition of reciprocity among their peoples.
“It’s a more formal arrangement than just helping the neighbors as we see in America. It’s so important that it has its own name – in the area I researched it’s called guelaguetza,” Cohen said.
When people have COVID or other illnesses, community members take care of their food crops and share their water and food. No one is left to their own devices, he said.
Although the Zapotecs and other indigenous peoples of Mexico are fighting the pandemic as best they can, they need more government support.
“There is still so little response to Indigenous concerns at the national and federal levels,” he said. Many of these needs predated COVID-19, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problems.
The most pressing concern for most communities is access to clean water, according to Cohen. Lack of clean water increases the risk of intestinal problems like cholera, among other health problems, which will intensify the effects of COVID-19.
In addition, many Indigenous people have to travel out of their villages to learn, work and care for themselves, which is difficult and dangerous during the pandemic.
“A lot of people were suffering before COVID-19 and the pandemic is only making things worse,” Cohen said. “The best bet of the Zapotecs, they know it, is always themselves.”
Indigenous Mexicans look inward to survive COVID-19, barricading villages and growing their own food
Jeffrey H. Cohen et al, Challenges, Inequalities and COVID-19: Examples of Indigenous People from Oaxaca, Mexico, Global public health (2021). DOI: 10.1080 / 17441692.2020.1868548
Quote: Grasshoppers and roadblocks: Ging with COVID-19 in rural Mexico (2021, February 12) retrieved February 12, 2021 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-02-grasshoppers-roadblocks-coping-covid-rural.html
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