Panama mired in severe economic hardship after year of coronavirus

By Ana de Leon

Panama City, Mar 9 (efe-epa).- “We have to apply the vaccine and trust in it, we have no other choice,” Yolanda Ngichingkee, a nurse in Panama’s capital, told Efe while placing a dose in a refrigerator.

Tuesday marks the grim one-year anniversary of the start of the coronavirus crisis in Panama, which has registered nearly 6,000 deaths since the onset of the pandemic and is facing an economic collapse unmatched in decades.

Since last week, Ngichingkee has been administering Covid-19 vaccines to adults over 60, the disabled and patients with chronic illnesses at a public school in San Miguelito, a district of Panama City’s metropolitan area that has been one of the areas hardest hit by the disease in that Central American country.

There is an awareness among many in Panama, a country home to 4.2 million inhabitants, that the vaccine offers the only hope for an economy that has been battered by stay-at-home orders, the shuttering of commercial establishments and the longest school closure in all of Latin America.

Those measures were grudgingly accepted throughout last year by the poor in Panama, where a paltry state subsidy of $120 a month was paid to the most affected families.

The Covid-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on the country’s economy.

Panama’s gross domestic product plunged 17.9 percent in 2020 and the unemployment rate rose from 7.1 percent to 18.5 percent. The informal employment rate climbed from 45 percent to 52.8 percent, and a drop in the country’s risk rating set off alarm bells at the nation’s banks.

Health authorities meanwhile, say they have done a yeoman’s job in detecting as many Covid-19 cases as possible.

“We started by doing 1,500 tests (per day). To date, we’ve done (an accumulated total of) almost 2 million,” the Health Ministry’s national head of epidemiology, Leonardo Labrador, said.

The Pan American Health Organization, meanwhile, says that Panama (which leads all Central American countries in confirmed cases) has been a leader in the Americas in terms of tests conducted per 100,000 inhabitants.

Dr. Julio Sandoval, the ministry’s former adviser on Covid-19, said the pandemic struck a country whose health system had been very fragile but in just one year managed to install intensive care units and other sites to attend to coronavirus patients.

Panama, which has registered 345,236 confirmed cases and 5,934 deaths attributed to Covid-19, on Jan. 20 launched a four-phase vaccine rollout that is aimed at inoculating nearly 3 million people.

A total of 211,751 doses thus far have been administered of the vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech.

“We’re going at a good pace. As the vaccines steadily arrive, we’re applying them,” the national head of nursing at the Health Ministry, Eusebia Calderon de Copete, said.

Besides Pfizer’s vaccine, Panama also has contracts for others developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. It also is in negotiations to purchase doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and will participate in the Covax mechanism, a World Health Organization-led effort that aims to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have access to Covid-19 vaccines.

“Up to a thousand people typically arrive per day. But we’re exceeding that goal and have had to ask for more vaccines!” an enthusiastic Ngichingkee said of the successful vaccine rollout. EFE-EPA


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