The digital presence of coronavirus in Amazonia

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Author: Andrea Bravo Díaz, anthropologist, UCL alumnus, Institute of Public Health PUCE

Field site: The lockdown found me in the Yasuní National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazonia where I have been working on a health project with the Waorani indigenous people. I am writing from the Yasuni Scientific Station, where I am currently in quarantine.

Photo taken by the author in the Ecuadorian Amazonia

It was early March when the digital presence of coronavirus in Amazonia struck me as being different than that in Andean cities. Most of the people that I know in Amazonia do not have access to TV, but they do have a smartphone, WhatsApp and Facebook. Most of them do not have permanent access to internet, but they often visit places with Wi-Fi, which helps them keep up with the news. As you might imagine, I have seen some of these visits to Wi-Fi spots, and most of the news updates at this point in April are about coronavirus.

In early March, while in Andean cities there was an awareness of the global spread of the virus, including a few cases in the Ecuadorian coast, most of the people I talked to did not perceive it as an immediate danger. The moment I reached Amazonia and started talking to indigenous leaders, their concern felt exacerbated by the difficulties around accessing healthcare in Amazonia, but also by an avalanche of news (including fake ones) on social media. This impression grew stronger while spending time in indigenous villages. Among recently contacted indigenous people, news of this virus has triggered memories of past epidemics that they faced just a few decades ago when they accepted peaceful contact. The elderly people who have these memories have already abandoned their homes near Amazonian oil roads, and have found shelter in the depths of their forest. Younger people remain in their villages, keeping up with news on social media, and planning to leave if the virus gets closer.

It is now April and Guayaquil, a city on the Ecuadorian coast, has become one of the worst affected epicentres of coronavirus in Latin America. While social media has been flooded with videos of dead bodies abandoned on the streets in Guayaquil, the national news did not cover the same dramatic scenario, and took a while to catch up with social media.  From the forest, where we remained during the quarantine, it was particularly difficult to find out whether videos of Guayaquil shared on social media were fake. Could they have been real? Last week, the Ecuadorian president admitted that the number of deaths in Guayaquil is indeed higher than what was initially reported, meaning that social media was right.

The question of ‘whether it is real’ is surely one that has crossed many of our minds during these days, particularly in countries where people do not seem to trust the national media anymore. However, people are also puzzled as to whether to believe something they have just seen on social media is real. While I was aware that there were conspiracy theories around, this situation has provided me with a first-hand account of how people consume these theories. Most people around do not search for them, they appear on their timelines or they circulate over Whatsapp.

When I was sitting next to a woman who was watching a video which argued that coronavirus is a man-made disease on Facebook, from time to time she would turn to the person next to her and say “si ve?” (do you see?). An affirmative movement of her head while listening gave the impression that she agreed with what she was hearing. When I asked her what the source of this information was, she replied “it is a researcher”, as if the word “researcher” was equated to truth. Should I start a discussion about the researcher’s credentials? Or about the notion of fake news? I remained silent.