In Latin America, Panama Battles the Coronavirus Between Two Oceans

Dispatch from Panama: Saint Malo, a former vice president and foreign minister of Panama, writes how the country is slowly reopening while the confirmed Covid-19 cases keep rising.

by Isabel Saint Malo. Read more on PassBlue.

A recent view of Panama City, Panama from the apartment of the author.

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.

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. KEEP DEMOCRACY ALIVE: PLEASE DONATE TO PASSBLUE, A NONPROFIT MEDIA SITE IN NEW YORK CITY

Originally published at on June 11, 2020.



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