Home > Covid-19 > How the indigenous Ava Guaraní have used traditional knowledge and practices in the battle against COVID-19

Children from the Ava Guaraní indigenous community in Paraguay, holding balloons inscribed with COVID-19 safety messages to stay at home and remain within one’s village, a community outreach measure to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Photo Credit: Pastoral Indígena Espírutu Santo, Paraguay – Servants of the Holy Spirit

“This is not the work of God, but of men”… Ava Guarani residents of Paraguay in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Patricia Ynoñan, Misean Cara Development Mentor for Latin America and the Caribbean, writes about the congregation Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) and the strong results that have come from a unique approach to outreach and collaboration with the indigenous Ava Guaraní population in Paraguay, in their battle against the COVID-19 crisis.


The effects of COVID-19 on populations around the world continue to be significant and widely reported, but the consequences for Latin America’s indigenous communities may be less well known. There is cause for great concern about the impact of the pandemic on indigenous people in this region, especially due to the lack of government policies specific to this population and the greater risk they face from social and economic exclusion. Many families, for instance, do not have a steady, reliable income, relying instead of intermittent jobs or day work at minimum wage, or from the sale of farm products or domestic animals. They also frequently lack access to community services and have limited access to basic healthcare facilities.

Although indigenous communities in Paraguay are part of the nation’s great diversity and cultural wealth, they are also often the victims of systematic and structural discrimination by the State, as well as by non-indigenous society. They frequently represent the poorest, most excluded and marginalised population in the country[1].

Despite these challenging circumstances, the Congregation Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) has been been making great strides working with the indigenous Ava Guarani population in helping them combat the COVID-19 crisis. In Paraguay, the Ava Guaranis are the second largest indigenous population, with a total of 17,697 people dispersed throughout approximately 140 communities (and 18 family nuclei), mainly in the regional departments of Canindeyú, Alto Paraná and San Pedro, but also in Caaguazú, Central, Amambay and Concepción[2].

Given the low involvement of the State during the pandemic, the indigenous population has largely taken its own measures in their battle against COVID-19, using primarily traditional knowledge and practices.

Given the low involvement of the State during the pandemic, the indigenous population has largely taken its own measures in their battle against COVID-19, using primarily traditional knowledge and practices. This includes voluntary isolation and closing off their territories, as well as more widely-used preventive measures that have been taught and disseminated to them in their own languages. In the role of facilitator, the SSpS Congregation has undertaken coordinated actions with local governments, church organizations and other institutions to respond immediately to the urgent situation that the indigenous population have been facing, especially the crisis that has developed around adequate food supplies.  

The project team started by reprioritising the programmes planned for 2020. Due to the interruption of everyday activities and the limiting of social movement put in place by the government of Paraguay during the pandemic, many of the planned project activities of the SSpS were not carried out, which allowed the team to reallocate a percentage of the budget to focus on preventative measures. Funds and resources were also redirected to activities that would help limit the spread of the virus into the territory of the Ava Guaraní populations, a situation which would have had a catastrophic effect.  Efforts were also made to support and strengthening the anti-COVID-19 measures being taken by adjacent communities, as a means of benefitting everyone in the region.

Developing a means of getting information out to the local communities was a critical early step. Different media channels such as radio, podcasts, or WhatsApp groups were used to disseminate information about COVID-19, all in the languages of the local indigenous populations. The Congregation project team also realised that a key success factor in carrying out their work was that it would need to be done in partnership with indigenous leaders—listening, learning, but above all respecting their cultural practices and knowledge as an important link to making outreach initiatives successful.

Integrating local customs and practices into the outreach approach represents a critical difference to the way that state institutions and other organisations have taken more widely with measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Integrating local customs and practices into the outreach approach represents a critical difference to the way that state institutions and other organisations have taken more widely with measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Typically, their recommendations to the indigenous populations were based on the same strategies used with the general population, without being based on an understanding of the unique context of indigenous cultural communications. Culturally specific aspects of the indigenous communities that needed to be considered in the COVID-19 outreach, but which were often overlooked by traditional public outreach include:

  1. The structural vulnerability suffered by the vast majority of indigenous people who, in many instances live in areas far from urban centres and with enormous limitations in terms of access to basic services, including water and health.
  2. Second, the indigenous peoples have cultural approaches that integrate western practice with ancestral knowledge, including their own languages and traditional medicine. These communities have long relied upon their ancestral traditions in relation to nature and the human body and shouldn’t be expected to take up other types of practices without the risk of negative consequences perhaps worse than those of the pandemic itself.
  3. Lastly, for indigenous communities, in particular those with small populations, preventing the entry of the virus into their territory is a matter of life and death, not only for individuals, but for entire communities. Given the immunological vulnerability of many of these populations,  the entry of COVID-19 could have had dramatic consequences, on a scale similar to what has been seen with the introduction of other diseases in the past.[3]

Compelled by these factors, the SSpS Congregation in Paraguay intervened from the beginning of the pandemic (and with the onset of government restrictions), to partner with the communities on the issue. It was evident that there was no healthcare infrastructure in place to assist the indigenous populations in case of spread of the virus so decisions were made to work in coordination with the different local governments and institutions to carry out joint prevention work.

“This is not the work of God but of the human beings”…With this mindset, the indigenous communities reflected on what they were facing with the pandemic, discussing and learning about the best measures to take to prevent contagion. By reflecting as a community, the local population accepted the measures suggested to prevent contagion. After this, posters were developed in the local languages of the region, allowing information about the virus to be distributed and accepted and the necessary measures to be adopted.

An important complement to this work was the provision of hygiene materials, including soap. Another critical activity was the production of face masks by the women of the villages. It is important to point out that all this work had as its central objective the care of life, with the dramatic result that no one in the communities where the Congregation intervenes being infected (a total of 42 communities, with approximately 1500 families).

Also worth noting is that the measures adopted by these communities made it possible for classes to continue in the schools, with the children of the communities continuing to attend three times a week. The work of the congregation has helped ensure a successful roll-out of a COVID-19 plan through information campaigns, delivery of essential supplies, and the teaching and implementation of virus-inhibiting hygiene practices. By respecting local cultures and opening-up channels for intercultural dialogue around the pandemic, the congregation has helped to fill a void in COVID-19 response left by the local and state authorities.

Placing posters about COVID-19 on the walls of local houses.
Photo Credit: Pastoral Indígena Espírutu Santo, Paraguay – Servants of the Holy Spirit

Indigenous women making face masks, to help with preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Source: Pastoral Indígena Espírutu Santo, Paraguay – Servants of the Holy Spirit

1https://www.ifad.org/documents/38714170/40258424/paraguay_en.pdf/6ad31aca-7bd5-41dd-bab7-3d978b084a9c#

2https://revistascientificas.una.py/ojs/index.php/rfenob/article/view/142/116

3https://revistascientificas.una.py/ojs/index.php/rfenob/article/view/142/116