Maribel Vilka didn’t even bother going to a community meeting to educate her indigenous community about COVID-19 vaccines.
“What happens if I die from the vaccine? I have small children, ”she said, expressing mistrust in government health services after failing experiences during two pregnancies.
Fears, voiced by a 38-year-old woman who lives near the shores of Lake Titicaca, are pervasive among Peru’s indigenous population, which makes up about a quarter of the country’s 33 million people, and have complicated the nationwide vaccination campaign.
Although over 55% of Peruvians have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, only about 25% of people in indigenous areas have been vaccinated.
Authorities say this is partly due to difficulties in getting the vaccines to and distribution in the remote Andean and Amazonian regions, where many indigenous people live. Some clinics are so poorly funded that they do not have enough gas for their cars.
And some indigenous people complain that, as in other countries in the region, the government is slowly coordinating with indigenous leaders on how best to reach these communities.
But it is also true that a deep-seated mistrust of government authorities has left people open to unfounded rumors and conspiracy fantasies, spread through social media or word of mouth, about vaccines that could save many thousands of lives.
Despite overwhelming evidence based on more than 7 billion doses of the vaccine delivered worldwide, serious side effects are very rare, Wilka said she fears the shot could kill or harm her.
Rumors of vaccines, sometimes spread on local community radio in Quechua, often mimic Q-Anon disinformation spread on US and European social media about microchip tracking or dire side effects.
And for the indigenous population of Peru, both ancient and recent history give rise to distrust.
Many recall the government project carried out by doctors and nurses that sterilized about 273,000 indigenous women during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori from 1990 to 2000.
Perhaps no country has been hit harder by the virus than Peru, with more than 200,000 deaths in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University, with a per capita death toll lower than any other significant country. Per capita, Peru has lost more than twice as many people to COVID-19 as the United States or Brazil.
However, infections and deaths among the indigenous population of the country were much lower: the Ministry of Health reported fewer than 700 deaths of indigenous people from COVID-19 – perhaps one of the reasons many do not feel the urgency of vaccination.
Julio Mendigure, the ministry’s director of indigenous affairs, said the most common rumors he hears is that vaccines contain tiny chips that can be used to sterilize women or reduce male sexual activity or cause premature death.
Rural nurse Marina Chekalla said others believe vaccines can cause a magnetic field to attract metal or improve telephone signals.
On a small scale, to help overcome the mistrust, the government turned to the Red Cross, which has a good reputation in the countryside. Beginning in August, he sent nurses and volunteers to 64 communities to answer questions about vaccines in local languages.
Red Cross health coordinator Paul Acosta said that of the 1,777 people they spoke to, 70% were vaccinated.
The government has also committed $ 6 million to a campaign to promote vaccines in Amazon communities, hiring local residents to help promote vaccines.
But such efforts often come after people already skeptical of official intentions have spent months pondering bizarre conspiracy theories.
In the high-altitude village of Santa Cruz de Mijani in the Puno region of Peru, 54-year-old Josefa Espinoza told the Red Cross vaccine promoters that “I would rather die without being vaccinated” because she heard that along with “good vaccines” there were other. which “cause death.”
Espinoza, who listens to local radio stations tending to her livestock, said she believed the virus was created in a laboratory by “rich countries” and that a new, more powerful version would be spread by fleas, bees and snakes “produced by rich countries.” countries … rich guys will manipulate us and that worries me, ”she said.
In San Antonio de Putin, Alicia Chura said she heard on a local radio station in Quechua that the elderly were being given vaccines to kill them because the country “is filled with many people.”
On the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca, boatman Joel Wilka said he feared a vaccine following a measles shot when the child was in pain for months.
Regarding the COVID-19 vaccine: “They say it leaves you like a zombie; they are going to insert the chip and they will know where you are going and what you are doing. “
The persistence of such ideas upsets Nurse Marina Chekalla, who tried to promote life-saving shots at a meeting missed by Fork in Jochi, San Francisco.
“There are myths that are damaging and prevent us from reaching the population,” she said.
More than 70 people gathered, but only 30 were shot.
One of those who did this was 82-year-old Celso Quispe, although his wife and three grown children did not.
“There are comments, but I don’t believe them,” he said. “What do people know?”