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Guatemala's rural and indigenous communities are hit hardest by COVID-19

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Like many developing countries, Guatemala is getting hit hard by the delta variant. And within Guatemala, rural and Indigenous communities are feeling it the hardest. Maria Martin traveled to some Indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala and found people using methods both ancient and modern to try to make it through the pandemic.

DOLORES RATZAN PABLO: (Non-English language spoken).

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Mayan priestess Dolores Ratzan Pablo makes offerings of flowers, liquor and multicolored candles to the sacred fire.

RATZAN PABLO: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Ratzan Pablo asks for protection for her Mayan community of Santiago Atitlan from the effects of the pandemic and from the diseases and deaths that the virus has brought.

RATZAN PABLO: I pray for the village. I asked all the creator, the goddess, Mother Lake, all nature for protection and also for strength.

MARTIN: Ratzan Pablo believes in the power of prayer but also of modern medicine. She's been vaccinated and wears a mask, unlike many in Indigenous communities who remain suspicious of Western science. She says Guatalama's Maya have a long historical memory of diseases like smallpox and measles brought by the Spaniards, which wiped out so many Indigenous peoples in the Americas.

RATZAN PABLO: They remember how the disease is coming, you know? This is not the first time. It just keeps coming.

MARTIN: It's a Sunday morning in another Indigenous town called Santa Maria de Jesus. Five men, Kaqchikel Maya agricultural workers ranging in age from 30 to 50, shoot the breeze as they wait to have their shoes shined. I asked them about vaccines.

(Speaking Spanish).

RUDY ALCALA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: (Speaking Spanish).

ALCALA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: (Speaking Spanish).

Of the five, only Rudy Alcala has been vaccinated.

ALCALA: (Through interpreter) There are vaccines now, but there's a lot of bad information, so people don't let themselves be vaccinated.

JOSE SANTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Fifty-four-year-old Jose Santana says he finds it hard to trust anything coming from the Guatemalan government, especially from the president.

SANTANA: (Through interpreter) Well, nobody's perfect. But if he were a little more sincere, than we would trust him. But because there are so many negatives, we can't go all in.

MARTIN: People in Indigenous communities are exposed to the same disinformation as elsewhere and the falsehood that the vaccine is experimental. Manuel Picahau gets his news from a local station.

MANUEL PICAHAU: (Through interpreter) Watch a cable station that plays a lot of news from the United States, and there are a lot of people there getting sick because of the vaccine.

MARTIN: Which is another falsehood. One of the reasons for the lack of trust, according to Indigenous advocates, is that it took so long for information about COVID to reach these communities. Mayas speak more than 20 different dialects. In places like Santiago Atitlan and Santa Maria, Spanish isn't widely spoken, and many people are illiterate, without a television or computer, which is how the government was disseminating health information. Anthropologist Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimantuj is a K'iche' Maya who teaches at the University of Oregon.

IRMA ALICIA VELASQUEZ NIMANTUJ: This topic is a little complex. The Indigenous people have another way to think. In my understanding, the main problem is the lack of communication between the government and the communities.

MARTIN: According to one study, for the first four months of Guatemala's vaccine rollout, which began in late February, most people who received injections lived in urban areas like Guatemala City, were university educated and identified ethnically as Ladino - that is, not Indigenous. This in a country where Indigenous people comprise at least 40% of the population.

ALICIA SAMUC: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "We have a health care system that's precarious and ignored, with a budget that's truly embarrassing," says Alicia Samuc. She's a public health nurse from Santiago, who's recently been charged with heading up the vaccination program for the entire province. Samuc blames a lack of leadership for the COVID crisis in Indigenous communities like Santiago, beginning with Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei and the three health ministers he's appointed in less than two years. But she also points the finger at local leaders, political and religious. Some evangelical congregations, she says, direct people not to get vaccinated or wear masks.

SAMUC: (Through interpreter) All of these institutions who should've come to the plate simply dropped out, including community groups and churches. And this is frustrating not to feel the support of people and especially of our leaders.

MARTIN: Recently, the disinformation led to violence in a remote Maya community in the northern province of Alta Verapaz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: As this newscast reported, in early October, a brigade of public health workers visiting a Q'eqchi' Maya village was attacked by people, who also destroyed their vials of vaccines. As a result, the minister of health announced that door-to-door vaccination campaigns were being suspended. Meanwhile, remarks about the incident by Guatemala's president did little to help the situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO GIAMMATTEI: (Through interpreter) If people don't want to get vaccinated, fine. If they want to die, bury them standing up. But just don't ask the government to invest one filthy cent on that population.

VELASQUEZ NIMANTUJ: The problem with the government, being the president and the minister, is they don't care about Indigenous people.

MARTIN: Again, anthropologist Velasquez Nimantuj.

VELASQUEZ NIMANTUJ: There is a lot of racists against the Indigenous people. They don't receive appropriate service in this specific situation, especially now. They can face stigma and discrimination.

MARTIN: With little hope of things changing soon, many Maya prefer to use their traditional remedies to fight off the virus, says Maya priestess Dolores Ratzan Pablo.

RATZAN PABLO: Hibiscus, ginger, garlic, cinnamon and honey - they bring the fever down - yeah, and eucalyptus.

(Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Ratzan Pablo says the Maya have survived the Spanish conquest, a recent genocide and countless natural disasters. So as long as they have their corn and bean fields, she says, their natural medicines and their connection to nature they'll survive." For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO LANES' "PHASES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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