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Virus infects 38 indigenous Brazilians; 2nd health minister quits

Men carry boxes to be installed for the coffins at the Sao Pedro municipal cemetery, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 14, 2020. (Reuters photo)

The coronavirus pandemic has hit 38 indigenous groups in Brazil, raising fears for populations that have a history of being decimated by outside diseases, the Brazilian Indigenous Peoples' Association (APIB) said Friday.

"The virus is reaching indigenous territories across Brazil with frightening speed," the association said in a statement.

An APIB survey found 446 cases of the new coronavirus and 92 deaths among the affected groups, mainly in the Brazilian Amazon.

The grim news came a day after the indigenous community of Parque das Tribos, outside the northern city of Manaus, held a funeral for its chief, MessiasKokama, who died of COVID-19.

Kokama, who was 53, was buried in a closed casket wrapped in plastic to avoid spreading the virus.

Brazil, the Latin American country hit hardest in the pandemic, has seen its death toll spiral.

It has registered nearly 15,000 deaths and 220,000 cases so far, though experts say under-testing means the real figures could be 15 times higher or more.

The pandemic is also creating an opening for illegal miners and loggers to encroach on indigenous lands, said rights group Survival International.

"Countless tribal lands are being invaded, with the backing of a government which wants to completely destroy the country's first peoples and makes no attempt to hide it," said the group.

It criticized far-right President Jair Bolsonaro for his push to open protected indigenous lands to farming and mining.

Second health minister resigns in past month

Brazil lost its second health minister in a month on Friday after Bolsonaro demanded wider use of unproven anti-malarial drugs to fight the coronavirus outbreak, adding to turmoil in one of the pandemic's worst-hit countries.

Brazilians banged pots from windows and health experts reacted with outrage at the resignation of Nelson Teich, the second doctor to leave the top Health Ministry job as the outbreak explodes. Brazil's confirmed cases climbed past Germany and France this week, growing at a daily pace second only to the United States.

Bolsonaro had demanded on Thursday that Teich issue federal guidelines for the early use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients, despite studies that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the malaria drug for COVID-19 and raised concerns it may cause heart problems.

"I was elected to make decisions. And the decision about chloroquine goes through me," said Bolsonaro, adding that his call to end state orders on social distancing should also be the last word.

Teich, an oncologist and healthcare entrepreneur, gave no reason for his resignation at a press conference. He had also become out of step with Bolsonaro's push to reopen the economy, expressing surprise when he learned of a presidential decree allowing gyms, beauty parlors and hairdressers to open.

Teich's predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a former lawmaker and military medic, was also fired by Bolsonaroon April 16 for resisting his demands to promote hydroxychloroquine and fight against state governments' isolation orders.

Growth of the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil has set daily records in each of the past three days.

Brazil's death toll has risen by more than 800 per day to nearly 15,000 on Friday, as the crisis overwhelms hospitals in several cities and public cemeteries resort to mass graves.

(Source: News agencies)

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