When the pandemic reached the indigenous communities in northern Argentina

By Olivia Acosta

Maximiliano is 24 years old, a senior nursing student at the Argentine Red Cross Superior Institute in Salta, a province located in the northwest of Argentina that borders Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay. He is also responsible for the humanitarian camp of the Argentine Red Cross in Salta, where he and his colleagues support 800 indigenous families of Wichis, Toba and Chorote ethnicities every day. The project started at the beginning of the year due to the declaration of an emergency following the death of 10 indigenous children from malnutrition and lack of access to water.

According to Maximiliano, "it was at this time when the Argentine Red Cross decided to implement a humanitarian camp to provide health care, food and drinking water to indigenous families affected by malnutrition and drought, and to support the development of their capacities".

The camp is located in the heart of the communities, in the middle of nowhere, and through its 10 tanks and a water treatment plant it is able to provide between 45,000 and 60,000 liters of water daily to the indigenous families of the area. Survival in Salta is very difficult, the temperature can reach 45º, the area is very arid and deserted.

"Access to the communities is very complicated, there are no roads, we had to create them ourselves in order to be able to get there with our vehicles and bring water every two or three days. The children are waiting for us very excited, with the little cups ready... I have learned to value water very much, you realize how important it is when you don’t have it. Since we brought them the water, we have managed to reduce diarrhea and improve the children's size, because before they took water from contaminated rivers, putting their health at risk."

Given the scarcity of medical care in the area, the camp also has a first aid tent and a mobile team to be able to move patients from the most remote villages. All camp volunteers are trained in first aid and provide support to families with a protection, gender and inclusion perspective.

When COVID-19 arrived in the area, Maximiliano thought that if there were a high number of infections, the pandemic could wreak havoc, because it would be very difficult to control it. Indigenous families are very vulnerable and their houses, which are barely 8 square meters, with mud walls and plastic roofs, are home to families of more than 8 people, in conditions of great poverty and overcrowding.

"The first thing I thought was: how are we going to teach them to wash their hands to avoid infection, if they barely have water?"

With the arrival of the pandemic, the volunteers of the camp had to work to adapt to the isolated conditions and decided to increase the distribution of drinking water, with the intention of generating more hygienic habits in the families. Besides that, they started to collaborate with the San Victoria Hospital in the "Plan Detectar". Their work consists of visiting the communities to evaluate symptoms and respiratory problems, with the objective of verifying the need for PCR tests if the established criteria are met. For severe cases they coordinate the transfer to the hospital and for mild ones, they follow up on their health status at home and distribute masks and hygienic disinfection kits.

According to Maximiliano, "the use of masks has been complicated for them, because they had never worn any before. We had to hold workshops and give guidelines through community radio to advise, for example, to avoid crowds. Now, almost 75% wear masks and follow the prevention measures, which has been a success and has compensated for all the effort. So far, we have had 18 positive cases and 16 are already recovered," he says proudly.

According to Maximiliano, these are nomadic communities that are deeply rooted in their culture, religion, and language, and it is not easy to establish relationships. "I have been in the camp for 250 days and now everyone knows us, several volunteers are learning their language, some even speak it already, and wichi language is very complicated! For the children of the indigenous families, the camp is a fun place with trailers, motorcycles, lights, vehicles... they find it very appealing and love to come visit us".

Now begins the second stage of the project for the development of these communities and improvement of their quality of life, through a plan of crops and gardens, training in the use of recycling, waste collection, construction and access to latrines, among others. "Sometimes we get frustrated when we think about all the work we have ahead of us to support the development of these communities, we feel like ants, but then I always think: if we weren't here, how would they be now? And then I see the progress we made together with the families, I realize the great value we bring and how important it is for the communities," concludes Maximiliano.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Argentine Red Cross has been developing articulated actions to support the response to COVID-19 with the aim of reducing infections, alleviating the suffering of affected people and their families, and contributing to reduce the impact of the emergency in the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the volunteers of the Argentine Red Cross have carried out more than 9,500 social and health actions in response to the emergency.

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