‘They will turn into alligators’: Evangelical Christian missionaries turning Amazon villages against COVID vaccines

Vanderlecia Ortega dos Santos from the Witoto indigenous tribe, receives a COVID vaccine in Manaus. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Reuters
Vanderlecia Ortega dos Santos from the Witoto indigenous tribe, receives a COVID vaccine in Manaus. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

On the São Francisco reservation in the state of Amazonas, Jamamadi villagers sent health workers [arriving with COVID vaccines] packing with bows and arrows when they visited by helicopter this month, said Claudemir da Silva, an Apurinã leader representing indigenous communities on the Purus river, a tributary of the Amazon.

“It’s not happening in all villages, just in those that have missionaries or evangelical chapels where pastors are convincing the people not to receive the vaccine, that they will turn into an alligator and other crazy ideas,” he said by phone.

That has added to fears that COVID-19 could roar through Brazil’s more than 800,000 indigenous people, whose communal living and often precarious healthcare make them a priority in the national immunization program.

Tribal leaders blame Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and some of his avid supporters in the evangelical community for stoking skepticism about coronavirus vaccines, despite a national death toll that lags only the United States.

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“Religious fundamentalists and evangelical missionaries are preaching against the vaccine,” said Dinamam Tuxá, a leader of APIB, Brazil’s largest indigenous organization.

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The government’s indigenous health agency Sesai told Reuters in a statement that it was working to raise awareness of the importance of coronavirus immunization.

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