Colonial History Adds to French Guiana's Pain

Pandemic recalls illnesses first brought by Europeans
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 19, 2020 11:10 AM CDT
Colonial History Adds to French Guiana's Pain
A woman sells vegetables in the slum district of Mont Baduel, in Cayenne, French Guiana, earlier this month.   (AP Photo/Pierre Olivier Jay)

When white doctors walked into Camopi, a majority Indigenous town near the border with Brazil, townspeople felt worry instead of relief. With French Guiana facing a wave of coronavirus infections, the AP reports, doctors from the French mainland were there to administer tests and treat the sick. But for residents of the former colony, few of whom have internet or television or knew about COVID-19, the appearance of health workers carried echoes of the arrival of Europeans in South America and the disease and exploitation they brought. "There is still in the minds the time of colonization and the havoc wreaked by viruses brought by colonizers," said a representative of Indigenous communities. "So when they saw white people from the mainland, they made the link." France’s most worrisome virus hot spot is on the northern coast of South America: French Guiana, a territory of about 300,000 people where poverty is rampant and health care is scarce.

Its outbreak has exposed deep economic and racial inequality that residents say leaders in Paris have long ignored. Months after the virus stabilized in mainland France, it grew in French Guiana. More than 6,500 cases have been recorded in the territory, though officials fear the real number is much higher. Hospitals reached capacity in June, and the French military intervened to ferry patients to the French Caribbean island of Martinique. The national government sent 130 reserve health care workers to French Guiana, with more on the way. Local officials decry a lack of concern from the French mainland for a region where more than half the population lives under the national poverty line—some 10% don't have running water—and where it took more than a month to translate the government's COVID-19 guidance into local languages. One of French Guiana’s two lawmakers in the French legislature said the government dictates decisions, as "in the times of the colonies." He wants that to change.

(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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