Alvanei Xirixana, a 15-year-old Yanomami boy, has died of COVID-19. His indigenous tribe in the Brazilian Amazon is legally protected from outside contact in order to preserve their health and their way of life. A land reserve was established to do so. But it turns out, that land contains riches, which is the scourge of all indigenous tribes.
While incursion into that area is illegal, gold mining and logging operations make daily forays into the reserve, bringing disease and polluting the rivers with toxic elements. This is how Alvanei contracted the virus. While the government of Brazil has known for some time of these illegal activities and the threat they pose, they have not stopped it. Now, the very survival of this tribe may be at stake.
Greed and indifference are the accomplices of COVID-19. They aided and abetted its spread and have stood in the way of successful control of the virus. Greed and indifference will remain long after this pandemic, fueling future disasters unless we address them as central threats to human life.
Since the 16th century, indigenous peoples of the Americas have suffered massive losses from diseases brough by European invasion. Again, greed and indifference. Smallpox was even used as a weapon to wipe out tribes in Western North America to make westward expansion easier. In 1763, British Field Marshall Lord Jeffrey Amherst concocted the idea of lacing blankets with the smallpox virus and giving them to the Indians as a gift. The plan was carried out with some success. Lord Amherst was honored by having a town in Massachusetts and an elite college named for him.
Another item: the link between poor air quality and severity of coronavirus symptoms has been established. Despite that, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has decided to not reduce standards for soot pollution, which damages lungs and compromises a person’s ability to fend off the virus. Greed and indifference leading to death.
With COVID-19, self-interest and indifference allowed authorities to deny, minimize and delay acting. Indifference leads to not wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. Due to greed, essential medical supplies go to the highest bidder, certainly immoral when lives are at stake. Now supplies purchased by governors are being intercepted and pirated by agents of the U.S. government. Indifference and self-interest allow that to continue. The major pressure to “re-open the economy” is from people who don’t believe the government has any right to restrict their behavior. When restrictions are lifted on our activities, greed, self-interest, and indifference are what threaten a second wave of infection.
So, this isn’t just a war against a virus. The real war isn’t fully over until we neutralize its allies – greed, self-interest and indifference, or they will do other forms of harm. They are the major players in climate change, poverty, racism and so on.
We are winning the war on the virus with extraordinary compassion, courage and determination, in addition to knowledge and skill. These will all be needed to take on greed, self-interest and indifference to the suffering of others.
But who will lead the campaign against greed and indifference with the same determination and skill as we are doing with COVID-19? They may be what it takes to stop such mass destruction. Religious leaders might call for it, but organizing an effective campaign is something else.