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Colonialism and coronavirus

14 April 2020

Translated (loosely) from Francisco López Barcenas, “Pandemia y pueblos indígenas” (Jornada, 14 April 2020)



In April 1520, exactly five centuries ago, a smallpox pandemic in Anahuac [the Aztec Empire] profoundly affected the native peoples of the region changing their immediate and future history.

According to the testimonies of the time, the pandemic appeared a year earlier on the island of Santo Domingo. From there it passed to that of Cuba, spreading to the Yucatan peninsula and Cozumel, transported by the indigenous people that Pánfilo Narváez brought to those lands with the intention of capturing Hernán Cortés, by orders of Diego Velásquez. From Cozumel the Spanish advanced to Cempoala, where upon their arrival in March 1520 the pandemic began to spread among its inhabitants; Hernán Cortés, having gone to Cempoala, captured his persecutor, taking him prisoner, and tranferring him and his smallpox infested troop to Tenochtitlan. From there it spread among the towns of the valley and by September of that year it was already whipping its inhabitants.

The pandemic affected indigenous people more than Spaniards. To the indigenous it was an unknown disease, while the Spanish had plenty of information about it. As a result, while the Spanish took what precautions they could to prevent the spread among themselves, the indigenous were paralyzed by the “surprise attack” and allowed it to spread unchecked. While the indigenous considered it to be a punishment from their gods, the Spanish took advantage of their bewilderment to strengthen themselves as an occupation army and subdue them. The smallpox pandemic was used as an instrument of conquest by the Spanish and in the end sealed the fate of the invaded peoples.

The conclusions of the pandemic that hit Anahuac 500 years ago should be taken into account now that Covid-19 pandemic is raging in our country. One is that it must be taken seriously, that it cannot be played with; that true and accessible information is required to regulate our behavior presented in such a way that it neither paralyzes nor causes inappropriate behaviors or assumptions that allow it to spread. It is also important to prevent interest groups from manipulating the social needs imposed by the situation for their own ends. The pandemic must not be used by the dominant groups to perfect their control and worsen its effects upon the most vulnerable population.

Unfortunately among indigenous peoples actions and attitudes are far from what is needed. . Imbued by the lack of, or excess of, information, or by false information disseminated in the media, in some indigenous communities the pandemic is still thought to be a political invention with undeclared political ends. Official pronouncements, aimed at an urban-mestizo audience rather than an indigenous and rural population are not fulling comprehended. Indigenous linguists and communicators are doing an important job generating culturally appropriate information, but they are still insufficient. This activity needs to be strengthened so that people become aware of the seriousness of the problem. The lack of permanent economic income to meet the needs of families and the absence of a government program that covers them if they stop working, is a factor that prevents people from staying at home, as officially recommended. Given the choice of moving about and able to eat, or staying home and protecting themselves, they opt for the former.

Official measures meeting the economic, social and cultural situation of indigenous peoples are urgent. But when they arrive, if they arrive, the peoples cannot be paralyzed, as happened 500 years ago, because if they are, such measures would be undone by the pandemic. It is important that indigenous authorities, the organizations to which they belong, and their advisers seek solutions to the pandemic with their own resources. Family solidarity and collective work for the common good must be employed. Indigenous professionals must receive the support of our scientific knowledge acquired in the universities but without assuming that they are the only or the most important factors in decisions on the best practice to fight the pandemic, but rather combined with those of the communities.

Information and collective action is the formula. That the correct measures are taken and in time it depends on the indigenous peoples overcoming the crisis and emerging stronger from it. Defeat will only dampen the 500 years of colonial rule over them.

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