When the Virus Arrived in the Tropics

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By Fernando Berguido

I look out  from my balcony onto the streets of the Casco Viejo, the colonial section of Panama City. I can hear only an occasional fragment of conversation carried by the breeze or infrequent passing of a car. Panama’s second greatest tourist attraction after the Canal is completely deserted. 

Views from Fernando Berguido's balcony in Casco Viejo

In 1994, I came to live here in the historical district, four years after the U.S. invasion of Panamá, which ended with the arrest of strongman Manuel Noriega. Back then, tourists were warned that the Casco was a dangerous area to visit. It was a working-class neighborhood, densely inhabited, filled with half-ruined buildings that silently testified to what the neighborhood had once been, the center of political, economic and religious power since colonial times. 

From my balcony, I enjoy the fine weather during the quarantine. The first months of every year are climate’s greatest gift to Panamá. In January, the daily downpours and oppressive humidity that ravage this tropical isthmus are replaced by radiant sunshine and a fresh breeze. 

The guayacan tree and its ephemeral flowers

It is the season we Panamanians know as summer. It’s a time for school vacations, for open-air concerts, long walks through the downtown historical district and spectacular sunsets among the coastal belt of the capital city. It’s a time of outings to the Pacific beaches or the islands of the Caribbean or the coffee country of Chiriquí.

The tourists who read about Panamá are dutifully warned: it is high season, which extends from January to mid-April, with a enviable temperature that contrasts with the cold of the United States, Canada and Europe. 

The Casco Viejo is well-versed in the annual summer ritual. Its plazas and narrow street are jammed with tourists, starting at the end of December. Young backpackers leave their hostels early in the morning to look for a breakfast place. Later, they flock the museums and churches. Those who choose to stay in the modern city arrive in the colonial sector a little later, followed by cruise passengers, whose tours now disembark in the city after going through the Panama Canal. At night, the Panamanians arrive to go to restaurants or parties; the younger ones visit the popular bars. 

And then came the virus. On March 10, 2020, the first case of Covid-19 was detected Panama: a Panamanian woman who had arrived from Spain. Ten days later, the government ordered the closing of all non-essential businesses. In one month, the toll reached 3,000 confirmed cases and 74 dead, significant figures for a country with a little more than a four million inhabitants. 

Views from Fernando Berguido's balcony in Casco Viejo

By then, all international flights had been suspended and a 5 p.m. daily curfew imposed. On March 16, absolute quarantine was declared: people could only leave their homes for a maximum of two hours daily to buy food and medicine. The last number on a person’s national identity card (cédula) determines the hour each person is allowed to go outside.

A few days later, the rules became even more strict. Twenty days after the first contagion, half the population was restricted from going out on the street each day. And to the surprise of many in the international press, that restriction was made on the basis of gender. Women could leave their homes two hours Monday, Wednesday and Fridays; men could go out their two hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sundays, no one can be on the streets: it’s total quarantine.  

These sanitary measures, as well as daily press conferences, have been in the hands of medical experts, not politicians. The Health Minister, advised by a team of infectious disease specialists and well-known scientists, recommend to the president and his cabinet what actions he should take. It is thought that the month of April will be the peak of the coronavirus in Panamá. 

The flowers of the oak, roble, last only two days

A series of economic measures have also been taken. In the first place, through the delivery of bags with food, the government seeks to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable, which, in Panamá, include the population of indigenous reservations, as well as poor people in outlying areas of Panama City and Colón. There’s also been a effort of giving out solidarity vouchers for US$80 monthly, for both unemployed and informal workers. Identifying and giving out these vouchers is a titanic task because databases to identify who really needs the money are incomplete or inexistent. 

This year had been one of great optimism for the recuperation of the tourism industry. After stagnation in the number of visitors in the last few years, 2020 was expected to be a year in which the country would reposition itself as a tourist destination. The new terminal in the Tocumen Airport, with more than five years of delay, and center of the successful “Hub de las Américas,”was just about to be opened. Likewise, a new convention center right at the entrance of the Panama Canal was due to open, very near to the almost-completed first cruise port in Panama’s Pacific Coast. 

The country’s other great hub, the maritime, may also see a decline in its operations because of the resounding drop in international trade that necessarily transits the Panama Canal and half a dozen connected ports. 

Views from Fernando Berguido's balcony in Casco Viejo

I return to my balcony and the streets are still deserted. In these last 26 years, I have never seen the neighborhood so silent and desolate. Gentrification over time has inevitably transformed the type of people who live here. The children playing innocently in the alleys or the parties of adults playing music at full volume gave way to restaurants, bars and boutiques. Later came the hostels. Many government offices though are still here. 

The comings-and-goings of government officials, as well as the public seeking services in state offices; cars entering and leaving all the time, whether with families who have lived here all their lives or the new neighbors, including a significant group of expatriates who have chosen the Casco Antiguo as their new home: the changing scene has never taken away the neighborhood’s vitality. Only the virus has achieved the silence and this very strange emptiness. 

Fernando Berguido is a lawyer, journalist and Harvard Nieman Fellow. He was the publisher and editor of La Prensa. He was the president of the Panamanian Chapter of  Transparency International and more recently Ambassador to Italy. He is the author of the autobiographical book Una vida póstuma and of Anatomia de una trampa (Anatomy of a Scam), a true story that recounts the dealings of how he as a diplomat exposed the bribes behind the Finmeccanica deal and recover millions of dollars of public funds to his country.