Lucky in Panama in a Pandemic

I realize I am one of the lucky ones. I have food and medicine, a clean, safe home and enough funds for my immediate future. I’m not too anxious even though Panama is in complete lock-down. I also know I am lucky that I live in Panama. The news coming out of the United States is horrifying and it’s not a lot better in my country of origin, Australia.


I’m not saying, it’s not difficult in Panama. As of today, Sunday March 29th, we have 901 confirmed cases and a total of 17 deaths. Just a few days ago, I wouldn’t have believed we could possibly have that many cases and deaths in a matter of days. We are a small country with just a little over four million residents, so that is a relatively high percentage. For comparison, the state of Kentucky in the United States, has just over four million residents but they have only 323 confirmed cases and eight deaths.


Fortunately, we are a small country with plenty of available food. The day-fishing boats go out every night and the farmers are still growing plenty of vegetables. But, if you are going to make purchases, you need a plan since everyone has about an hour a day to be out.

I Feel Lucky

However, I do feel lucky and safe in Panama because the government has taken very aggressive steps to contain the spread of COVID-19 and, in general, Panamanians are obeying orders to stay home and we are already seeing a flattening of the curve. Everyone can leave their home for two hours each day and it is only to purchase food, medications and gasoline. In reality, you only have about an hour to actually shop because you must reserve the other hour for travel. There are checkpoints.


The lines are long at the stores dispensing food, medications and gasoline, even though the government has instituted a system to control how many people may be out at any given time. The last number on your government issued identification or passport for non-nationals, determines when you can be out. For example if your last number is a seven, you can leave your home at 6:30 am to start shopping by 7:00 am and you must be home by 8:30 am. Anyone over 60 years-of-age shops between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm and everyone is off the streets by 4:30 pm. All public transportation is stopped and even delivery services are not allowed.


Looking at The Zaandam

Because I live close to the Panama Canal, I can see the Holland American cruise ship, Zaandam, stranded because they are not being allowed to transit the canal due to the 138 passengers with “flu-like symptoms” along with four passengers who have died. I’ll never look at a cruise ship the same way as I did before I heard the word COVID-19! While I feel sorry for the stranded passengers, I am grateful the workers at the Canal will not be exposed.


I simply don’t leave my home. There are virtual yoga classes and I purchased enough coffee to last until Christmas. I may have mis-managed my wine inventory and know I will be very sober soon. Alcohol sales are not allowed in Panama and of course bars are closed.


Yes, I Know Someone!

At the beginning of this pandemic I had friends who questioned the seriousness of the virus. They would question if anyone actually knew someone who had the virus. Early on, I could tell them I did know someone—well an entire family—that was hard hit. The reason I am in Panama is because of the kindness of one man, Herman Bern, Sr. He helped me when I needed help desperately. Today, he lingers in the Intensive Care Unit, 12 days now on a ventilator. We await anxiously to hear he has regained consciousness. Every time we think he has turned the corner, he slips back. He’s only 74-years-old.

This photo, with Herman Bern Sr. on the far right, was taken in April 2013, when Mr. Bern announced the construction of a new Crowne Plaza hotel in Panama City. It took $20 million to build and earlier this week, the family turned the hotel over to the government to be used as a hospital.

Herman Bern, Sr. started Empresas Bern in 1978 and he quietly defined the skyline of Panama City by building stunning office buildings and residential towers. Today the company he started is the largest real estate developer in Panama and certainly one of the most respected.

In addition to the new “Crowne Plaza Hospital”, a field hospital is under construction which will provide 100 additional beds. It is going up as rapidly as the confirmed cases. Masks, gowns and ventilators are being purchased.

We Will Get Through This Together

Now, his four children actively run the business, which also includes 2,000 high-end hotel rooms. Earlier this week, the family decided to turn over one of the hotels to the government to be turned into a hospital and a second hotel to serve as a dormitory for medical personnel who are not being allowed to return home. There was no discussion of compensation, but simply “we will get through this together!” Several other Bern family members tested positive for the virus, but I am pleased to say they have all mostly recovered.


And, Then The President


In a passionate address Panama’s president calmed the anxiety of a nation by asking them to be kind to each other, stay calm and to be assured the basic needs of everyone would be met.

There are many reasons I feel lucky, but another reason is how our newly elected president, Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, is handling the pandemic. He addressed the nation the other night and made us all feel we were going to be alright. He explained what the government was doing in terms of providing relief for laid off workers. “Your electricity will not be turn off,” he said and then adding the rates were being lowered by 50%. “You will not lose your house because of COVID-19. The banks are going to be flexible.” He explained how the government would be getting money into the hands of those in need. He asked for solidarity and he asked for everyone to show grace. “If you have chickens or eggs and your neighbor is in trouble, offer them some!”

He asked for patience and he thanked the men and women on the front lines, such as the police, garbage collectors, physicians, nurses and grocery clerks. Most importantly he said the government was making decisions, based on the advice of the health experts.


It’s hard to imagine how the next weeks and months might play out with this pandemic, but I have already started to limit my exposure to the world-wide news and focus on why I think Panama is getting it right! We will get through this together!

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