Supporting the Indigenous People of Panama in the Struggle Against COVID-19

Por Teobaldo Hernández Thompson

The impact of COVID-19 is accentuating the inequalities that have already existed in countries like Panama.  Therefore, and although this country is not yet experiencing the most extreme scenario of the emergency, it’s necessary to broaden the view toward the indigenous world, emphasising those communities that live closer to the cities, as well as on those in isolation or initial contact.  A few days after Panama decreed mandatory confinement to stop the coronavirus, the first positive case was detected in an indegenous brother, who is now recovered.

Since that time, the 51 Kuna Yala pueblos have led a series of measures to protect themselves.  Immediately, The General Kuna Congress, CGK, Ruling Authority of the Kuna Yala Pueblo called leaders from each pueblo to ratify the regional quarantine, closing the entry to foreigners to control the spread of the virus.  These measures have been complied with;  in addition, the communities themselves have made an effort to communicate the measures dictated by the Health Ministry, translating official material to our original languages.  Although these peoples are organized in the face of the global threat, the Panamanian state, through the Ministry of Culture, should also be supporting a response from an intercultural approach to guarantee their health in this new pandemic scenario.

The overall pandemic situation is a challenge for health systems.  If the peak of this pandemic represents, for many countries, a collapse of their health systems, this could be more devastating for Indigenous People in our Panama, according to what many organizations have stated.  There is a great shortage of health centers and posts in Indigenous territories, without medicine or necessary equipment and with great difficulty in applying the intercultural approach, which is key in valuing the health-related beliefs and visions, and to complement them with concrete actions by the State.

When the outbreaks of diseases don’t take measures related to culture, these end up being a risk of extinction for Indigenous People, just as happened with the Candoshi Peoples, due to an outbreak of hepatitis B in Loreto, Peru.  This case alerts us to the situation of many peoples, whose traditional health systems haven’t been sufficient to deal with the illness, and further reveals the need for education and training in intercultural health from the state health institutions that allow them to better communicate with the population, and understand their practices in order to strengthen them.

This concern is transferred to peoples in isolation or initial contact.  Massive deaths have already been seen from illnesses like the cold or measles, to which Indigenous People have no immunity.  These peoples therefore exercise their self-determination to isolate themselves.  A measure that, as we are experiencing today, guarantees our survival.  Hence the importance that the Ministry of Culture should integrate and play a greater role in this scenario, to guide the measures needed to protect Indigenous People.  However, because of the absence of the state to implement said measures, the authorities of the Indigenous People have decided to suspend the entrance to the Territorial and Indigenous Comarcas. 

The State is aimed at taking differentiated actions, but it’s necessary to emphasize that these measures be adequate to the beliefs and conceptions of the Indigenous People with respect to the diseases; as well as to their particular living conditions.  These measures must involve intersectoral intervention at different stages, ranging from an informative phase to adequate attention and equipment of the health centers and medical care that give services to these peoples.

Likewise, emphasis should be placed on care during emergencies, establishing security protocols that permit, for example, a rapid evacuation of those affected in the event of a virus outbreak within the communities.  As the Health Ministry has well established, the flow of communication should be given in original indigenous languages, through oral and accessible means, and with a gender perspective, considering the role of women within their families as caretakers of the home, of children and older adults.

Indigenous People have expressed from their world view that: “the heat of our Abya Yala and the sacred plants will face COVID-19, but they won’t stop this tragedy if adequate measures are not taken.”  From different solidarity organizations, we must reaffirm our commitment to the most vulnerable populations in the country, and in that line, the Panamanian state and indigenous organizations should promote a series of concrete actions for the prevention of the virus, strengthening the training at the community and territorial level with the deployment of communication media with an intercultural approach.  With this, an effective response can be generated, through the analysis of the territorial vulnerability of the Indegenous Peoples; and for recovery through specific measures that help accelerate the wellbeing of this population.

-Teobaldo Hernández Thompson is a Kuna Indian, geographer and social and environmental specialist in safeguard policies. He is a former coordinator and currently an advisory member of the Kuna Youth Movement, a human rights activist, and part of the International Indian Treaty Council’s team of specialists on issues of food sovereignty and security. He is currently an independent consultant, and is developing programs for Indigenous producers and farmers.