Quechua communities in Cusco fear infections with coronavirus

Quechua communities in Cusco fear infections with coronavirus

25 May 2020

On Friday, April 24, the mayor of Ollantaytambo, José Ríos Coronel, reaffirmed that the first person from the region that houses Machu Picchu died, the deceased had Covid-19.


The community member says that he spent three days with the dead man at his home. That they called the authorities, but they did not want to go up to remove the body. That the deceased was a stranger - and emphasizes this term - who arrived in the community of Willoq, Ollantaytambo district, in Cusco, on Monday, April 20. Villagers saw him wandering the streets. Some gave him food and drink. No one knows exactly where he slept that first night, but it is clear that the next day he was welcomed by a member of the community.


He found him on the street, pale and short of breath. So she decided to take him home and lay him on a bed so he could rest. He thought he was drunk. The stranger who said he had come from another community did not want to have dinner, but he did drink a lot of water, said the witness.


The next morning, when he went to see him, the stranger was no longer moving. With a broom he pushed him and he was stiff. Then he called the health authorities, because he did not know what to do. Doctors arrived hours later, and they took a sample that, twenty-four hours later, confirmed that the man who had come from another community to work on the potato harvest died from Covid-19.


The man who took him into his house says that the deceased was from Vilcabamba, and this was also verified by the Police. He had arrived in Willoq in a fruit truck to assist in the harvest. No one knew his name, they only remember that he was passing through and, unfortunately, he died in this Quechua community located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, an emblematic area nestled in the middle of mountains and rows of long eucalyptus trees.


The Quechua communities of Ollantaytambo call for urgent health intervention to prevent Covid-19 cases from spreading. Closing access to towns is a protection, but also a risk.


No medical personnel in the community



According to the Ministry of Culture, in Cusco there are eight indigenous or native peoples; among them, the Quechuas, Matsigenka, Yine, Harakmbut and Asháninka. Altogether, it is estimated that there are around 335 thousand people, 27% of the inhabitants of that region. However, only 48% of the indigenous population has drainage; and 75% with drinking water. Regarding access to health, 78% have some insurance.


In Willoq, one of the original communities of the Urubamba valley, 250 families live. Most of them dedicate themselves to planting products such as potatoes, quinoa, corn, peas, or broad beans, and to experiential rural tourism, through lodgings for travelers interested in learning about their culture, dances, and textiles. The men also work as porters, carrying the luggage of the visitors and adventurers who make the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.


In the neighboring areas of this town, the rural communities of Rumira Sondormayo, Q’elkanka and Patacancha stand out. In normal times, they are friendly towns with the strangers, but after the first death related to the Covid-19 the eight hundred families that inhabit this river basin have closed their accesses and they abide by a strict quarantine. The Quechua community members have placed huge rocks at the entrance and exit of the towns. Isolation, however, has a second unintended effect: Villagers in Willoq claim they are running out of food.

To get to Willoq from Ollantaytambo, the main town in the area, it takes two hours on foot or 45 minutes by car. In this community there is a medical post implemented by a German NGO that, however, stopped working when the pandemic broke out. "They haven't done the rapid test to find out if we have Covid-19, nor the family that took in the stranger. We are asking the health center to examine us, but so far they have not come. If they can't, send specialists and medical supplies to the health center” said Melo Huamán.


Protect the original culture



The communal president of Willoq said that, in the absence of prompt attention from the Health sector, they decided to fumigate the town and set up four water basins for the residents to wash their hands frequently. But there is a bigger problem exacerbated by isolation: ending agricultural products and other food to survive. "The community stores have already closed for fear of catching it," he said.


For the anthropologist Fernando Astete, it is urgent that the requests of the population of the Willoq-Patacancha basin be met, since they are original Quechua peoples that keep Inca traditions alive. “It is a rather fragile town, but very rich culturally speaking. The population maintains the living Inca identity, their typical costumes, and their dances and participate in the festivities of Cusco, "he said.


The same opinion was expressed by Norma García, from the Bartolomé de las Casas Center, who expressed concern over the slow response of the Health sector, and that there are groups of Cusco residents who are returning to the region from other places. "We must carefully monitor the borders of these towns, to prevent the entry of strangers. In this, the authorities must be strict, and especially that health personnel arrive so that they can attend urgently to the population” he said.


The case of the deceased stranger in Willoq is a red flag. When health personnel arrived to take the samples from the deceased, they said that later they would return to do the same to the neighbor of the town who helped him and his family. "But they still haven't come. When we call them, they tell us they will come when we have a fever or other symptoms, "says the man.


For now, all the community members of Willoq, and in particular the family that welcomed the stranger who died from Covid-19, are complying with the quarantine and are not leaving their community for safety, and also out of fear. The surrounding communities, alerted by the death of the visitor, are also not far from their territories. They are hidden and isolated at the same time. 

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