In French Guiana, the virus exposes inequalities, colonial heritage
PARIS (AP) – When white doctors entered Camopi, a predominantly indigenous town in French Guiana near the border with Brazil, townspeople felt concern instead of relief.
As Guyana is facing a wave of coronavirus infections, doctors on the French mainland were there to administer tests and treat the sick. But for residents of the former colony, few of whom have the internet or television or knew about COVID-19, the appearance of health workers bore echoes of the arrival of Europeans in South America and of the disease and of the exploitation they brought.
“There is still in the minds the time of colonization and the devastation caused by the viruses brought by the colonizers,” Jean-Philippe Chambrier, member of the Arawak tribe and representative of the indigenous communities of Guyana, told The Associated Press. . “So when they saw the Whites from the mainland, they made the connection.”
France’s most disturbing virus hotspot is on the north coast of South America: French Guiana, a land of around 300,000 people where poverty is endemic and healthcare scarce. Its epidemic has exposed deep economic and racial inequalities that residents say Parisian leaders have long chosen to ignore.
Months after the virus stabilized in mainland France, it developed in French Guiana. For weeks in June and early July, about a quarter of the daily new infections reported across France were in French Guiana, which has just 0.5% of the French population. More than 6,500 cases have been recorded in the territory, although the authorities fear that the number of infections is estimated to be much higher.
Its hospitals reached capacity in June and the French army intervened to transport patients to the island of Martinique in the French Caribbean. The national government has sent 130 reserve health workers to French Guiana, and more are on the way.
Local officials say a porous border with Brazil and the rapid spread of the virus was only part of the problem. They denounce the lack of concern of the French metropolis for a region where more than half of the population lives below the national poverty line – about 10% do not even have running water – and where it took more than ‘one month to translate the government’s original. COVID-19 guide in all local languages.
Guyana was colonized in the 1600s and became a French “department” in 1946, making it an integral part of France which uses the euro and responds to political leaders in Paris, 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles). It is a multi-ethnic society with several indigenous communities, descendants of black slaves, descendants of settlers and immigrants. And although it represents a seventh of French territory, it is rarely mentioned in French politics and news.
The virus changed that, at least temporarily. For weeks, this has been the top priority of the national health agency in France. New Prime Minister Jean Castex made a rare trip to French Guiana’s capital Cayenne this week to offer moral support – but not much else.
In the slums that crisscross Cayenne, aid groups have stepped up their food distribution efforts during a lockdown that has devastated the livelihoods of those working in the informal economy. Many of them did not have access to temporary unemployment benefits.
Things are just as bad in villages like Camopi, which has only one doctor for every 2,000 people. Camopi detected 61 cases in May and June, and although no one has died, the challenges illustrate some of the most glaring inequalities in France.
Its inhabitants speak Wayampi, Teko, Portuguese, Creole and French. When doctors come from France, they need mediators and translators.
Silvain Louis has been a volunteer mediator at Camopi for four years. He says residents have long been ignorant of the virus and how to protect themselves. “They knew they were locked up, that there was a disease,” said Louis, who is of mixed Creole, Chinese and indigenous descent. “But there was no prevention to explain it.”
The first case Louis discovered was of a grandmother living in his neighborhood. “She had been lying in her hammock for two days” with a headache, sore throat and fever, he said. Like the other early cases in Camopi, she did not immediately think it was COVID-19.
“She thought it was fatigue or maybe the flu,” Louis said. She tested positive and was taken to Cayenne by helicopter for hospitalization in case her condition worsened.
Because internet access, electricity and TV reception are limited at the Camopi center, few people know about the virus, Louis said, and healthcare workers have to go door-to-door. .
When the first more doctors arrived, people didn’t feel any safer. “From day to day, you see teams of doctors everywhere. It’s scary, ”Louis said.
In 2016, there were 55 general practitioners per 100,000 inhabitants in Guyana, most of them concentrated in Cayenne. This compares to 104 per 100,000 in mainland France.
The last time French Guiana gained national attention in France was in 2017, when tens of thousands of strikes and demonstrations staged strikes and protests to demand better healthcare structures and resources to fight crime. The state has promised a new hospital, 40 million euros to help the existing hospital in Cayenne and 120 new health professionals.
“We were fooled,” Gabriel Serville, one of Guyana’s two lawmakers to the French National Assembly, told AP. He said the money was only sent after he filed a lawsuit, when the hospital had not yet been built and not all 120 medical professionals had arrived.
In January, before the virus became a major concern, Serville sounded the alarm about the low number of doctors and asked for help from Cuba.
“Many families live in makeshift homes where people don’t have access to water,” Serville said. “When people have no running water and no money because they have to feed and clothe their children and pay their rent, buying hydroalcoholic gel (hand sanitizer) is not a priority.”
Since February, Serville has been asking that the pandemic measures used in mainland France be applied differently in Guyana. Annick Girardin, the French minister of overseas departments and territories, went to Guyana at the end of June with cases exploding there, and she finally proposed measures similar to what Serville had requested.
Serville said the government uses a management style in which decisions are dictated from above, such as “in the colonial days”. He wants that to change, so that actions are taken according to local needs rather than directives from Paris.
“The participatory mode that we use time and time again is very far from being implemented in Guyana,” said Serville.
Pierre-Olivier Zay in Cayenne, French Guiana, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.
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