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In Latin America, Panama Battles the Coronavirus Between Two Oceans

A view of Panama City from the apartment of the author, a former vice president and foreign minister of Panama. The country is slowly reopening after months of lockdown, although the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases keeps rising. ISABEL SAINT MALO

PANAMA CITY, Panama — March 2 marked the beginning of the school year in Panama, when about a million students, a quarter of the population, headed for school. One week had passed when the first Covid-19 case was reported, a national emergency was declared and full lockdown began. My husband and I live with our youngest son, a senior in high school, while our two oldest go to university in the United States; one is a graduating senior in New York City and the other, a sophomore in Philadelphia. Both universities, Columbia and Villanova, announced online education by mid-March and our children flew home.

Our home quickly turned from an office for two — as my husband and I work from home — to a home for five, three of them attending school online. Living comfortably here in Panama City, we have enough space for all of us, but we had to enlarge our broadband Internet service for all the activities going on, from work to exercise to school. Rummikub became a favorite pastime for evenings, as well as reading and watching Netflix and Apple TV.

As a former public and international civil servant and now an international consultant, I soon became engaged with experiences and measures across the world related to the pandemic and understood how dramatically different my family’s experience with Covid-19 was from other families’.

The crisis brings inequalities to the forefront. Telecommuting does not mean the same to all workers, as not all jobs can be performed at a distance and not all homes have the minimum tools to connect. Education from home does not mean the same for students of families and schools with technological capacities as for those from the underdeveloped world, who lack equipment and broadband. Washing hands, the most basic recommendation, is not available equally as millions of people worldwide have limited access to water. While my children have their separate spaces to engage with their professors and friends online, many families around the world are living cramped in small spaces.

Panama is a middle-income country, with impressive growth digits for the last 15 years and a GDP expected soon to be the highest in the region. Even though the country ranks high in the human development index, sharp regional inequalities predominate, according to the World Bank. Covid-19 does not represent the same thing to all Panamanians. Ranked in 2014 as the country with the highest “well-being” in the world by a Gallup poll, Panamanians are friendly and enjoy festivities, carnivals being one of the most popular celebrations. With pristine beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, rainforests and a vibrant capital, it is also a top tourist destination.

Although Panama’s global economy features a strong logistics sector, an interoceanic canal, ports on two oceans and one of the strongest air hubs in the continent, it nevertheless provides high-quality jobs for only a portion of the population. Quality education remains an important development challenge. And as part of the response to address these problems through the current crisis, the government has partnered with nonprofit organizations to offer teaching materials through such platforms as public TV and radio.

It is estimated that 75 percent of students in private school in Panama have access to the Internet; while in the public schools — serving the majority — 75 percent do not. In Latin America overall, it is estimated that 95 percent of children are out of school in the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Panama keeps rising, now totaling 17,889 out of 4 million people, with 413 deaths.

The United Nations has a presence in Panama, and it has donated personal protection and other medical equipment to the government’s pandemic response. The UN Development Program reports that the region expects up to a 25 percent reduction in tourism, and that the Panama Canal Authority received 35 cruise cancellations, abruptly ending the season. Other UN entities are donating hygiene kits for female detention centers in Panama, and the Food and Agriculture Organization is helping to ensure that indigenous people participate in the government’s food aid program.

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Lockdown has lent its own peculiarities in our country. Alcohol beverages were prohibited for more than a month and are still limited, based on the argument that it incites domestic violence; citizens are limited to two hours a day to go outside, according to your national identification number — men and women have different days to leave the house to ease government oversight. Females can leave their house for a two-hour period on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and men on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Some Panamanians argue that civil liberties are at risk, while others say that the measures enable better law enforcement during the lockdown.

Essential services have remained opened — supermarkets, food shops and pharmacies mostly — and a few others have been set up for online sales only. While maritime services have continued, along with the Panama Canal’s commitment to global trade and its nonstop service, the airport in the capital has been closed for two months, except for humanitarian travel, but it is expected to open by the end of June. On the positive side, advances in digital technologies have been impressive as businesses have rushed to update their platforms, schools train their teachers for online classes and the government increases the services that citizens can access online.

Panama has the financial and human resources to recover, but the challenge is to recover better. With national strategies aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, the crisis should change the course and ensure inclusion for vulnerable groups that have been historically excluded. Indigenous groups, Afro descendants, women and minorities need to be incorporated into the country’s growth and economy.

Three months have passed since the lockdown was put in place, although some flexibility has been added to certain economic sectors and citizens. Two of our children have finished their semesters and the rainy season is setting in. As we have the luxury of spending time together, engaging with our friends and relatives through technology, working and studying, we must continue to push for Panama, the region and the world to exit Covid-19 better than when we entered, with more opportunities for all. It is the only way to be prepared for the next pandemic.

This essay is part of a series of people who work in international affairs or global health relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe: Vienna, Chicago, Singapore, Madrid, Beirut, Geneva, Santiago, Chile, and Lilongwe, Malawi.

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Isabel Saint Malo, an international consultant, is a former vice president and foreign minister of Panama.

6 thoughts on “In Latin America, Panama Battles the Coronavirus Between Two Oceans”

  1. Thank you for writing this article, I enjoyed it and agree that continuous improvement in equality is the best way to ensure that countries move forward. I live in FL but I’m working on buying a lot in Chiriqui. I love the view you show from experience at the Hilton nearby. Fingers crossed that the airport and economy will be able to open soon. Any idea why cases are increasing even with the tight lockdown? Is it simply more testing in your opinion … or worse the virus is not fading?

    Reply
  2. Hi Bill,
    I think the increases of cases in Panama can be a result of different factors:
    1. Panama as to June 9, has perform 18.11 tests per 1,000. Needless to say we only have a 3% death rate and a 97% recovery death.
    2. The virus “will not fade”, It is most possible that it will become another endemic virus, even with the development of an effective vaccine it cant be guaranteed to be truly eradicated or prevented.
    3. Like the author points out the relying factors of the increase may sadly be in a huge part because of the wide social gap/ inequality that exists in our country.
    Government issuing a rigorous lockdown but at the same time not being able to aid or provide options for people with low income and extreme poverty.
    After months in confinement people with no food or money are forced to go out and find ways to provide for their families.
    Add to that the lack of clean water and other sanitary measurements needed to “help control the spread”.
    What the covid has exposed and magnified is the socioeconomic inequalities and the universal danger of ignoring the human rights violations occurring on a daily basis.
    4. That being said, the airport is due to open June 22nd (could be extended) and Chiriqui has reported only 16 cases in the last 24 hours.

    Reply
    • A great summary of facts and observations by Isabel Saint Malo!

      As an expat living in Coronado for the past 14 years, we have been impressed with the actions taken to halt the viral spread. Impressed enough to consider changing plans to move back to the States to use our Medicare benefits. We have a lovely condo overlooking the ocean and had two potential sales when the lockdown occurred. As far as reports indicate, only 2 cases reported here in Coronado, with 1 or 2 cases in Nuevo Gorgona and San Carlos areas over time.

      Compared to some states in the US, Panamá has more controls in place, and as a retired RN, I have appreciated these measures, but also wondered why the numbers keep going up.

      I agree with Tania’s observations on this topic and have one to add: on the one Saturday where my husband and I could shop together, a large store here in Coronado was doing as most stores open here, taking temperatures, requiring masks, and offering hand sanitizer. While waiting in line, four males of varied ages did not pass the temperature test.

      They were declined service, but no follow-up or directions as what to do next. One made an immediate phone call and the other three went in various directions. Shopping at this particular store suggests to me that they had enough money to seek medical follow-up and hopefully they did. We are lacking in this area.

      To me, the medical news I follow in print, online, and on various TV outlets demonstrates the importance of social distancing, handwashing and masks. We have not left Coronado, so I cannot comment on what is happening in other communities. The addition of the footbaths at stores is in keeping with studies that have tested the virus being carried on shoes.

      In two smaller stores, masks were not being worn, nor did the owner wear one. I told both owners I would return when all people in the store had masks. We stopped showing our condo and our small six-condo building does not allow guests.

      NOTE ON MASKS: A mask worn, then moved down around the exposed neck, then replaced on the face will be in contact on whatever is on the neck before it came in contact with inside of face mask. Cloth masks, once used, need to immediately be washed in hot soapy water, not left on any surfaces. I suspect improper mask usage is widespread and spreading!

      We did not consider leaving Panama because of medical care, only medical cost savings. The care here is first-class in general medicine and in all specialities.

      Reply
      • To know where the 30,000 exist would make it easier to understand how and why the spread. I’m guessing that populations that are barely subsisting normally do not have masks and as mentioned in the article, and some not even access to running water.
        The thing that irks me about this “revelation” about the disparity in Panama, and what should be done isn’t news. Why does it take a pandemic to start to pay attention to the very same people that have been ignored historically. Let’s hope that the attention that seems to being paid now does not evaporate. This is obviously not only a problem in Panama, it is true everywhere. All economically deprived communities suffer great and unjust burdens.

        Reply
  3. Es una buena reflexión, sin embargo la pandemia del COVID19, aha en marcado cada vez más, la falta de educación, la falta de un sistema de salud robusto y sobre todo ha dejado visible la necesidad de modificar o reestructurar las políticas de estado para que los ciudadanos vivan en un país prospero y de crecimiento global tangible. Es bueno resaltar las proyecciones del BID o FMI o cualquier otro, pero esto debe ir de la mano con el sentir de todo un país.

    Google translate: It is a good reflection; however, the Covid-19 pandemic has increasingly marked the lack of education, the lack of a robust health system and above all has made visible the need to modify or restructure state policies so that citizens live in a prosperous country with tangible global growth. It is good to highlight the projections of the IDB or IMF or any other institution, but this must go hand in hand with the feeling of an entire country.

    Reply
  4. Panama has a moderate climate. It should be very easy to stop almost all the infections.
    Besides social distancing and handwashing, the most important thing is use natural ventilation in all buildings including residential buildings. Open windows and use exhaust fans as necessary. The virus is airborne and people get infected in closed spaces.
    In apartment buildings, the virus will travel from one (infected) room to another due to air currents and diffusion.

    Reply

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