Can ancient potions treat COVID? Short on modern medicine, Peru’s indigenous groups give them a try

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Comando Matico volunteer Isai Eliaquin Sanancino, treats Sara Magin, who suffers from COVID-19 symptoms, applying an ancestral practice of the Indigenous Shipibo, in Pucallpa, in Peru’s Ucayali region. Credit: Rodrigo Abd/AP

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.

The Shipibo highlight the use of a plant known locally as “matico.” The buddleja globosa plant has green leaves and a tangerine-colored flower. [Indigenous teacher Mery] Fasabi said that by no means are the remedies a cure, but their holistic approach is proving effective. Unlike in hospitals, volunteers equipped in masks get close to patients, giving them words of encouragement and touching them through massage.

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“We are giving tranquility to our patients,” she said.

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Lizardo Cauper, president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, said that of about 500,000 Indigenous people living in the Amazon, his group estimates that 147,000 have been infected by the virus and 3,000 have died.

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