By Pilar Olivares
MAGE, Brazil (Reuters) – A glimmer of hope reached a community of descendants of slaves who fled outside Rio de Janeiro this week when it received its first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after a long struggle for recognition at a time when Brazil was the epicenter of the earthquake. of the corona virus pandemic.
The community at Mage, 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Rio, is known as a “quilombo”, a settlement founded by people who fled slavery and is now inhabited by Brazilians of African heritage who maintain a tradition that goes back to their roots.
“It was a constant daily fight, without sleep,” Ana Beatriz Bernardes Nunes, vice president of the Quilombola Community Association in Rio de Janeiro, said of the struggle to get the government to include the community among the priority group for vaccination, alongside the indigenous peoples of Brazil.
“Today, after many deaths, we vaccinated our community,” he added.
Under a thatched roof, near a patch of open grass used for religious ceremonies, a doctor takes a small bottle from a cooler and inoculates the assembled masked group.
Across Brazil there are more than 3,000 quilombos, according to the Palmares Cultural Foundation, which promotes Afro-Brazilian history and culture. Brazil’s vaccination plan estimates there are more than 1 million people living in this community.
Brazil was the last place in America to abolish slavery, eradicating it in 1888. At that time, at least 4 million people had been taken from Africa and forced to work in sugar plantations and across the economy.
Most of their descendants in the quilombo still live below the poverty line, with difficult access to health care, making them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
The latest wave of COVID-19 driven by a more contagious variant of the coronavirus is sweeping Brazil, with daily deaths exceeding 4,000 for the first time this week. The total death toll in Latin America’s largest country has risen to above 340,000 and could eventually surpass the United States to become the highest in the world, according to some experts.
President Jair Bolsonaro has opposed the lockdown, saying the cost of jobs is worse than the lives lost to the virus, but has recently emerged to show more support for a vaccine.
Brazil’s mass vaccination program started slowly after the country failed to move quickly to secure vaccine supplies. Less than 15% of the adult population has received the first dose.
The country has vaccinated about 12% of the priority population living in quilombos under its national immunization plan, according to the Ministry of Health.
For Paulo Jose dos Reis, leader of the Mage quilombo, vaccinations meant the worst was probably over.
“It gives us hope that there are better days ahead,” he said.
(Reporting by Pilar Olivares; Editing by Bill Berkrot)
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