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In just two days, 19,400 health professionals signed up as volunteers to work in the Yanomami Indigenous Land and collaborate to save as many lives as possible. Photo: Igor Evangelista/Ministry of Health

The Yanomami genocide exposed in 2023 the horror caused by four years of far-right rule in Brazil. And created the first movement of solidarity amongst a population which had been hostage to the manipulation of hatred of Jair Bolsonaro’s government (2019-2022). Faced with images of children dying of hunger and from diseases that are treatable, many of whom are unable to stand up straight on their own legs, in the space of just two days, January 22 and 23, 19,400 health professionals signed up as volunteers for the Unified Health System’s National Force (FN-SUS) program. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, along with a number of other professions, who are willing to leave their routine behind the moment they are called up to work in the Yanomami Indigenous Land and collaborate to save as many lives as possible. The number of registered volunteers represents a 700% increase: up until December 2022, the FN-SUS had 2,502 registered volunteers; today, it has more than 33,000.

Psychologist Juliana Sangoi, 39, who lives in Brasília, is one of the professionals who has signed up for the FN-SUS program. “When I saw the images of the Yanomami and the level of malnutrition and read about the violations of their rights, it quickly brought to mind the images that you see in history books, reports, and on the visits I made to the memorials of Holocaust victims in Berlin and Prague,” she says. “I was overcome by a profound sense of sadness. What the Yanomami are experiencing is a global humanitarian catastrophe.”

The word genocide is no longer just being used by a part of the population to define Bolsonaro’s actions on a number of fronts and has become one of the most spoken words in Brazil during the last week. On Monday, 23, the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety sent an official letter ordering the Federal Police to launch an inquiry to investigate a number of crimes allegedly committed by Jair Bolsonaro, of the Brazilian Liberal Party, and his government. Among them, the crimes of genocide and omission of assistance. Three days earlier, on January 20, SUMAÚMA reported that at least 570 children under the age of five had died of preventable causes in Yanomami territory during the four years of Bolsonaro’s administration: 29% more than in the previous four years of Dilma Rousseff’s administration (Workers Party) and, after her impeachment, that of Michel Temer, a member of Brazilian Democratic Movement. The likelihood is that the true figure is much higher, since the indigenous land experienced a statistical blackout.

In a statement, the Indigenous Populations and Traditional Communities Chamber of the Public Prosecutor’s Office stated that “the serious health and food security situation suffered by the Yanomami is the result of the Brazilian government’s failure to ensure the protection of their lands. The five-page document summarizes the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s judicial and extra-judicial actions in the search for solutions to protect the Yanomami, including evicting the miners from their territory. However, it stresses that “the measures taken by the federal government have been limited”. In the last few days, the Lula’s government, of Workers Party, has implemented a number of changes in various positions at the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (Funai), including 38 people being relieved of their positions and a further five being dismissed. At least 13 military personnel were discharged. More than 1,000 indigenous people with serious health problems and extreme vulnerability have been rescued in Yanomami territory, most of whom were suffering from malnutrition and malaria, according to the new Head of the Special Office of Indigenous Health, Ricardo Weibe Tapeba.

Psychologist Juliana Sangoi gets emotional when talking about the thousands of volunteers who, like her, are willing to ship out to the Yanomami territory at the first call. “More than ever, we need unity, people, because we will have a lot of work ahead of us,” she says. “Let this be a moment of recovery, in the sense of building and strengthening health policies for indigenous peoples.”

Another professional who has signed up is the 24-year-old doctor Cecília Machado. She qualified a little over a year ago and lives in the city of Salvador, in the State of Bahia, where she is doing her residency in pediatrics. “I heard about the case through social media and I decided to sign up because the situation really affected me. I registered using the form. I believe there’s a lot I can do to help in this context,” she says. “It is not acceptable that in a country with as much potential as ours, hunger continues to kill. What we really want is to see SUS (the Unified Health System) really working, giving more to those who need it the most, the way it should be.”

The Unified Health System’s National Force is deployed in extreme situations, when the state’s or the municipality’s response capacity is exhausted. In the case of the Yanomami, it was requested following the decree of Public Health Emergency of National Importance, on January 20. Among the workers who can help are the following: social workers, biologists, biomedical technicians, emergency vehicle drivers, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, doctors, nutritionists, physical education professionals, psychologists, first responders, nursing technicians, radiology technicians, occupational therapists, and vets, along with other health professionals.

Up until December 2022, the FN-SUS had 2,502 registered volunteers; today, it has more than 33,000. PHOTO: IGOR EVANGELISTA/MINISTRY OF HEALTH

In Brazil, the FN-SUS has already taken action in support of disaster situations such as floods, landslides, and the absence of assistance, as well as in the case of tragedies like the fire at the Kiss nightclub in the municipality of Santa Maria, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, in which 242 people died. “When I learned about the state of malnutrition, of the impossibility of access to health services by the Yanomami, on account of the siege by miners, of the death of children, everything started to bother me. I thought that I should take action in response to this discomfort – and the response is to help,” says the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Nilson Sibemberg, 61, from the city of Porto Alegre, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, who now lives in São Paulo. “More than 500 children have already died, and then there are the children who are still alive. How are these children who are still alive coping given that lots of other children they lived with have died? And how many of these children are disturbed because of this situation?”

A die-hard SUS supporter, Sibemberg says that the number of professionals who have enrolled in the program in such a short amount of time is “very encouraging” in light of the medical profession’s reactionary nature. “It was not by chance that on January 8 the Vice-President of the Federal Council of Medicine, Rosylane das Mercês Rocha, was cheering on the invaders of the Three Powers Plaza and posting photos on social media,” he points out. The CFM’s (Federal Council of Medicine) acting president on the date of the attempted coup by Bolsonaro’s supporters, the doctor posted videos of the moment the terrorists climbed the building’s ramp after breaking through a police blockade. In the caption, she wrote: “Now it´s going to happen.” She also shared an image of the Justice Statue. Located in front of the Supreme Court (STF) building, the work of art was vandalized with the phrase “You lost, moron”.

“A very significant part of the medical profession supported Bolsonaro. Knowing that 19,000 colleagues had the decency to offer to do this humanitarian work is really great,” comments the psychiatrist. “I hope that those of my colleagues who really have the chance to take part in an action of solidarity on behalf of those who are suffering can show up.”

The infectious diseases specialist Luíza Matos, 46, from Brasilia, in the Federal District also signed up to work in the territory that is experiencing a humanitarian collapse. Her assessment is that conditions like those seen among the Yanomami are only found in places where there is war and that the mobilization of health professionals is in proportion to the scale of the disaster. “I think the thing to do now is to try to save as many people as possible,” she says. Family and Community Physician, Debora Fontenelle, 60, from Rio de Janeiro, says she signed up the moment she became aware of the horror. “When I heard about the situation of the Yanomami, I immediately applied. Many people think that there is only the National Security Force, but there is also the Unified Health System (SUS). The high number of those who have signed up shows the strength of solidarity. There is still hope for us.”

Translated by Mark Murray


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