May 4, 2020
by Jean Foyer, sociologist and CNRS researcher
With its canal, its airport and its flourishing tourism, Panama is an international hub.
And so, it's no surprise that imported Covid-19 cases arrived early (first case on March 9) in this tiny country of a little over 4 million people. With slightly more than 7 100 cases and 200 deaths by May 3rd, Panama is by number of cases/resident one of Latin America's hardest hit. Even if the numbers on the continent should be taken with a grain of salt, the proportions are still a far cry from Europe's.
In response to the early arrival of the illness, confinement in Panama was also early, starting on March 12 and quickly becoming more and more restrictive. Since about March 20, going outside on alternate days for men and women has been put in place, a timeslot of one hour to go out, only for adults and to go grocery shopping, or yet the infamous "ley seca" (sale of alcohol forbidden). Traffic in the whole country is extremely regulated and controled by the police. Conscious of not being able to withstand such a sanitary impact with a very deficient healthcare infrastructure, the government of the new president Nito Cortizo (elected in 2019) had to take these measures, certainly among the most drastic of the continent.
The problem with this strict and early confinement strategy is the social-economic consequences that are likely to quickly be desastrous, especially in the most vulnerable areas, such as the working-class neighborhoods and the native territories of the country that have become more or less independant, the Comarcas. Yet, it's exactly in those two areas that the few 500 000 indigenous peoples of Panama live (about 12 % of the population).
There are seven indigenous groups with, from largest to smallest, the Ngobe peoples, Gunas, Emberas, Bugle, Wounaan, Naso et Bribri. These peoples primarily live in the "Comarcas" or "Tierras-Colectivas", regions that benefit from an autonomous status more or less put in place according to local situations and authority structures (map and case follow-up here). Gunayala on the Caribbean coast is the most famous of these Comarcas. Not only is it quoted as being the first territory of the continent to have received its autonomy from the central government, but it also served as a model to establish the other autonomous territories. The Gunas also have a distinctive international visibility because of the strength of their political organization and their traditional institutions. With a hundred cases and three deaths, Gunayala would neverthless be the indigenous territory most hit by COVID-19  despite circulation on the territory being forbidden by the General Congress. However, apart from the epidemic that thankfully has had minimal impact on the indigenous areas for now, it's mainly the closing of the territories, already isolated, that is unique. On the one hand, the Comarcas are relatively used to living partially isolated from the rest of Panamanian society and COVID-19 is just another episode in their long history of resilience. On the other hand, this situation showcases again their structural marginalization.
The first thing to notice is how important social media is, especially Whatsapp (an application that is so in use here that one wonders how Panama could have functionned before its creation), without which we would know next to nothing on the indigenous peoples' situation today. All those who know a little about the indigenous communities' world in Panama, and perhaps more widely in Latin America, know that smartphones and social media is extensively used. So, videos explaining what the virus is and how to protect oneself from it are circulating in several indigenous languages for those who speak little Spanish. We already knew this, and the Covid crisis is only confirming it, indigenous worlds today are almost as connected as ours and though some technological revolutions have only marginally touched indigenous communities, the digital turning point was radical and profoundly changed the way indigenous people communicate among themselves and on the outside. Many communities do not have electricity and barely have running water, but have minimum mobile coverage.
The second point has to do with the current urgency with the distribution of food through the Panama Solidario emergency program put in place by the government. This program aims to distribute food bags or 80 dollar vouchers per family every 15 days for the populations who are suffering the most from the confinement, notably in the working-class neighborhoods and the Comarcas. Panama Solidario would affect today more than 1.3 M° Panamanians, so 1/3 of the population. Apart from the broadcasted images and the glorification of the different sponsors, it is hard to know exactly the impact of the program and the effectiveness of its implementation, but several rumors heard coming from the indigenous regions point to certain failures, notably for those who are the most isolated and where aid has not arrived.
Furthermore, when aid does arrive, not everyone can benefit from it. In some indigenous communities on the East side of the country, the criteria opted for to separate those who get aid from those who don't is the material the house is constructed with: those who have wood houses (a sign of poverty) can benefit from it, those with solid houses cannot. And the bags are far from being sufficient to feed a family of four for 15 days and the "mega-purse" (mega-bolsa) for the Comarcas is apparently not as "mega" as announced. No need here to "kick the horse while it's down" in an emergency situation where this help is of course welcomed, but to point out the limits of Panamanian politics toward indigenous peoples. WIth Panama Solidario and its cohort of private sponsors, here's a very clear example of the mix between the Panamanian government's paternalism and economic liberalism where big companies play a leading role and whose cronyism is quite present. This mix, also found elsewhere in Latin America, clearly aims to buy some social peace, avoiding potential hunger riots, rather than dealing with the structural causes of poverty.
The third point of interest has to do with what could be called a "return to fundamentals" of the indigenous populations in two vital areas at least, health and basic activities, specifically agriculture. In the first, modern medical infrastructures are precarious in the Comarcas and it often takes several hours by car or boat to get to the first clinics which anyway aren't equiped to deal with an epidemic like COVID-19. In a situation exacerbated by fear of the virus, the indigenous populations logically turn to traditional medicine, not really to treat the known cases of the disease, fairly rare in any case, but to give meaning to this epidemic and attempt to avert it. Far from being a last resort, traditional medicine shifts back to a complexe interpretation of the world still very present among the indigenous populations of Panama.
Where agriculture is concerned, indigenous peoples have significantly moved away from basic activities for activities such as tourism (notably the Gunas and the Emberas in the Canal region), seasonal migrations toward production areas (for the Ngobe and the Bugle) and again migrations toward urban areas, often in the informal sector. There also, there seems to be a return to those basic activities even if it is done differently according to the context and the available resources. Some young Gunas are rediscovering the virtues of fishing and working the land, some Emberas are starting community garden projects and, though huntng is a more delicate subject because of the restrictions that are supposed to regulate it, one can imagine it is having a resurgence. In some regions though, a few local authorities are forbidding the access to fields and crops are lost.
Optimistically, one can hope that for both the authorities and the indigenous populations the crisis will lead to a new step in the defense and development of their cultures and their resources and out of it emerges projects that go in the direction of food autonomy and a healthcare that brings together allopathic and traditional medicine.
Depending on the different local contexts, the situation in the Comarcas therefore swings between dependance on humanitarian aid granted by the central government and a chance to reinforce an autonomy in various activities that are at the heart of indigenous identity. However, it's probably in the urban centers around the Ciudad de Panama and in the working-class neighborhoods where an increasing number of indigenous populations live that the situation is the hardest for people who lose their income overnight. We will have to see whether the post-crisis situation will lead to a return to the Comarcas for those indigenous people who are far from the foundations of their identity: land.
 Here too the numbers can show that Gunayala is one of the rare territories where tests are really being done. The testing policiy in the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca, by far the most populated, is probably very limited.
Jean Foyer is a sociologist and CNRS researcher. He currently lives in Panama. He coordinated the book ¿Desarrollo con identidad? on the issues around the development of indigenous regions (with Christian Gros). In Panama, he is currently working on the relationship between the indigenous populations and the environment, specifically relating to climate change.