In November, Pascuala Vázquez Aguilar had a strange dream about her village of Coquilteel, nestled among trees in the mountains of southern Mexico. The plague had reached the village and everyone ran towards the forest. They hid in a hut under a large oak canopy.
“The plague couldn’t reach us there,” says Pascuala. “This is what I saw in my dream.”
A few months later, the pandemic had engulfed Mexico and thousands of people were dying every week. But Coquilteel and many small indigenous towns in the state of Chiapas have remained relatively unscathed. It has been a blessing, but it also presents a problem.
Almost 30% of Mexicans have received a vaccine against Covid-19 so far, but in the state of Chiapas, the participation rate is less than half of it. In Coquilteel and many remote villages in the state, it’s likely to be closer to 2%. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last week highlighted the low vaccination rate in Chiapas and said the government needs to do more.
Pascuala is a community health manager for 364 communities in the region and she has been vaccinated. She enters and leaves the village and worries about bringing the Covid back to her family and friends who, like most of their neighbors, are not vaccinated.
They are influenced by the lies and rumors that circulate on WhatsApp. Pascuala has seen messages saying that the vaccine will kill people after two years, that it is a government plot to reduce the population, or that it is a sign of the devil who curses anyone who receives it.
This kind of misinformation is everywhere but in villages like Coquilteel it can be particularly powerful. “People don’t trust the government. They don’t see the government doing something right, they just see a lot of corruption, ”says Pascuala.
The community of Chilon is mainly made up of indigenous descendants of the Mayan civilization. In Chiapas, more than 12 official traditional languages are spoken. The first language in Coquilteel is Tzeltal and few people speak much Spanish.
The indigenous community in this part of Mexico has a history of resistance to central authorities, culminating with the Zapatista uprising in 1994. “The government does not consult people on how they want to be helped or how to govern,” says Pascuala. “The majority do not believe that Covid exists.”
It’s not just a problem in Mexico or Latin America, it’s happening all over the world. In northern Nigeria in the early 2000s and later in parts of Pakistan, distrust of the authorities led to the boycott of the polio vaccine. Some of these communities believed the lie that the vaccine had been sent by the United States as part of the “war on terror” to induce infertility and reduce their Muslim population.
“There is fertile ground for rumors and disinformation where there is already a lack of confidence in authorities and perhaps even in science,” says Lisa Menning, social scientist at the World Organization. health (WHO) which studies the obstacles to vaccination. “There are information gaps and perhaps poorly designed communication campaigns that have targeted these communities historically.”
Nicolasa Guzmán García spends much of her day in Coquilteel looking after her chickens and growing fresh vegetables for her family. She believes Covid is real but doesn’t feel the need to get the vaccine. “I don’t go out a lot. I don’t go to town, I focus on taking care of my animals, ”she says.
She also believes that their traditional way of life protects the community – they eat healthy, fresh food, get plenty of fresh air, and exercise. And like many indigenous communities in Latin America, the Tzeltals practice a mixture of Catholicism and their ancient spiritual religion.
“I can’t say if this vaccine is bad or good because I don’t know how it was made, who made it and what is in it,” Nicolasa explains. “But I prepare my own traditional medicine so I have more confidence in it.”
She uses a blend of cured tobacco, homemade alcohol, and garlic to relieve respiratory problems, and tinctures made from Mexican marigold flowers or street plant water for fever.
Medical doctor Gerardo González Figueroa has been treating indigenous communities in Chiapas for 15 years and says trust in herbal medicine is not just a tradition but a necessity – as medical facilities are often far away.
He believes that the traditional diet, lifestyle and healing practices have protective benefits, but he is extremely concerned about low vaccination rates.
“I don’t think the Mexican government’s efforts have been strong enough to involve all of society,” he says. “These institutions have acted in a paternalistic manner. It’s ‘go get vaccinated’.”
The federal government has declared its vaccination program a success, with mortality falling by 80% amid the third wave of Covid which swept through Mexico’s most densely populated urban areas.
Pascuala thinks the authorities gave up too easily when they saw that people refused to be vaccinated in the village.
“It’s a binary bogus to think of supply and demand as separate things,” says Lisa Menning of the WHO. She is pointing the finger at the United States, where a poll in March showed communities of color were also reluctant to get vaccinated until authorities made a major effort to make vaccination accessible. Immunization rates in these communities are now much higher.
“Having easy, convenient and really affordable access to good services, where there is a health worker who is really well trained and able to address any concerns and responds in a very caring and respectful manner – that is What makes the difference. “
It can’t be a top-down approach, she says. “What works best is listening to communities, partnering with them, working with them.”
Coquilteel is one of millions of small rural communities around the world where it is sorely lacking. For now, all Pascuala can do is keep trying to convince people to get the vaccine and she is focusing her efforts on those leaving the village, such as the truck drivers. But until everyone is vaccinated, she can only trust other powers.
“Thank God we live in a community where there are still trees and the air is still clean,” she says. “I think in a way Mother Earth is protecting us.”