Are We Making Progress Against COVID-19?

I wake up each morning and quickly check the reported numbers for COVID-19 in Panama, somehow thinking maybe they won’t be too bad. The map on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center site showed 2,250 confirmed cases and 59 deaths in Panama as of today, April 8, 2020. With 149 new confirmed cases, we continue to spike upwards, at a slower rate. It’s been almost a month since the first case was identified here and it seems the whole world has changed.

When I think about the 59 deaths, I think about how these are 59 mothers and fathers, wives, grandmothers, children, husbands, grandfathers, brothers and sisters. We are a young nation and most of the Panamanians who have died are not older. A 13-year-old girl died from the virus a week ago. Less than a month before she was playing with friends in the schoolyard.


Not Recovered Yet!

The Westin Playa Bonita, which is owned by the Bern family and overlooks the Panama Canal, has formed a message of “faith” by lightening certain guest rooms. “FE”, is Spanish for faith. It was originally done to lift the spirits of the guests on the stranded Holland America cruise ship, but now will remain until the COVID-19 virus is contained and the hotel reopened. and a message for all the ships transiting the Canal.

I am happy/unhappy to report my friend and employer, Herman Bern, Sr. remains in an intensive care unit (ICU) in a Panama City hospital. We are all acutely aware he has been ill for a long time with the virus and every day we hope this nightmare for the Bern family will end with a positive outcome. His vision and leadership has provided opportunities for thousands of Panamanians and his undying commitment to quality craftsmanship has been part of the reason Panama flourishes today.

Even as Mr. Bern works to recover, his family has turned over the Crowne Plaza Hotel to the government to be used as a field hospital. COVID-19 patients are being treated there and the family’s Le Meridien Hotel is serving as a dormitory for healthcare workers who, in an effort to contain the virus, are not allowed to go home between shifts. The Bern family is paying the wages of their employees who are maintaining hotel operations and not receiving any compensation for the usage of the hotels.


The Archbishop of Panama settled into a government helicopter preparing to take off from the old Howard Air Force Base in Panama Pacifico. He, along with two additional priests, provided the Catholic Church’s Palm Sunday blessing at a safe distance.

Blessings Via Helicopter

I never thought I’d see a helicopter fly by my balcony carrying the Catholic Church’s Archbishop, Jose Domingo Ulloa, as he delivered his Palm Sunday blessing while wearing a surgical mask. There will be no Easter services this coming Sunday because as the Archbishop noted, “we are living through an unprecedented event in the history of Christianity, celebrating Holy Week without a congregation in our churches.”

The Riba Smith grocery chain, closed their stores and distribution centers on April 5th for 48 hours while they disinfected and deep cleaned. They now require shoppers to wear masks. Social distancing is monitored there, but the stores aren’t that crowded. Panamanians can only go out for two hours a day, three days a week. When you can leave your home is regulated by your sex and last number on your government identification documents or passport for foreign nationals.


The Mine Closed

Space to store containers will be in high demand in Colon due to multiple ports in the United States having to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Everyone is bracing for an economic slowdown. The huge copper mine that had been allowed to continue to operate despite the mandate to stay home has now been temporarily closed after 10 confirmed cases and one death at the work-site. Since there are thousands of employees in a relatively tight area, the numbers will continue to rise, but the aggressive closure will allow for the mine to be reopened quickly.

There are fewer container and cruise ships going through the Panama Canal. Cruises have halted and with the lower cost of oil, logistic experts are sending ships on longer routes and not transiting the canal. However, with multiple ports closed in the United States and Chinese ships carrying goods from reopened plants, the need for container storage in Colon will increase.

Just enough money is being distributed to Panamanians to keep food on the table. Mortgages and auto payments are being extended. Schools are all closed, and everyone believes this school year has ended. Everyone misses their routines, the ability to go to a restaurant, chat over a coffee and physically interacting with humans other than immediate family. Days run together and a sadness has settled in not so much as a result of being quarantined, but from the not knowing where this will take us and for how long.


The Minister of Health has advised all Panamanians they need to wear masks when outside their home. Detailed instructions on how to properly wear and maintain the masks were given during a national televised address.

Doing Things Right

But, as I said in an earlier blog, Panama is doing most things right. I still shake my head at the group of young adults who were arrested recently for holding a pool party in the middle of a pandemic. You must wonder how they possibly thought that would be acceptable. But, generally, people are respecting the rules.

In addition to the social distancing, we are aggressively testing and tracing how the infection is being transmitted. A drive-through testing site has been set up on the Amador Causeway where people who have called the COVID-19 hotline and discussed symptoms can be tested. There are 15 Rapid Response Teams who monitor patients recovering at home and coordinate their safe transfer to hospitals, if the need for more intense care is detected.


Obsessing Over The Numbers

The confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Panama continues to go up, but the curve is flattening, indicating the aggressive steps the country has taken is beginning to work!

While I obsess over the Johns Hopkins tracking map, I find it interesting to watch how some countries are obviously not reporting accurately or maybe not being as serious about the virus as we are in Panama. In Mexico, with a population of 126.6 million, they report to having only a little over 500 more confirmed cases. Panama has a population of 4.3 million. Are they not testing? Not reporting accurately? Not taking the same strident steps to contain the virus and those numbers will soon explode? All I can think is how happy I am not leaving my home. I have good internet and enough food and coffee for the near future. The sky is blue outside my window and I still have a little wine.

Metro riders are told to keep two meters apart on the platforms and in the trains and buses. Masks are also encouraged and for the most part, riders are complying.


We Will Get Through This Together!

I know we will return to times where we will again have freedom to come, go and socialize. I’m amazed at how much I miss my work, but I’m confident when we return to a new normal, it will be a better normal. I think people will be kinder to each other. Recognize not to judge so quickly and be more forgiving. As I have always said, I hope I am not judged by my worst day, but rather by my best actions. Today the world is recalibrating and it’s one of the worse days. I look forward to better days! Hang in there—we will get through this together!

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