The impact of Covid-19 in Panama: two explanations – 15/04/2021 – Latinoamérica21

Panama, with its 4 million inhabitants and its small area of ​​75,000 square kilometers, made room for international news during the pandemic. Unintentionally, she did so because of her health performance which, at different times, was among the worst in the world, and the impact of the pandemic on her economy has been the most devastating. So, world public opinion seems to look with astonishment at what Panamanian citizens know well: the country is full of contradictions and there does not seem to be any common ground.

Objectively, at the beginning of July, Panama was the Latin American country with the highest number of cases reported per 100,000 inhabitants. Above Brazil, for example, which would have intentionally infected its population, which is not the case in Panama or Costa Rica, a neighboring country of similar dimensions and economic possibilities. The months of July and August of last year were much smaller than the avalanche of cases of the second wave of December and January.

Why did this happen? Naturally, the search for explanations in Panamanian society takes place in the political sphere, where subjectivity reigns and narratives are the product of the interests and repertoires of different political actors. There were two dominant explanations for the conflict, but they sometimes overlap: one based on the country’s historical-institutional trajectory and the other emphasizing structural inequalities.

The historical-institutional trajectory argument

The starting point of this explanation would be the weakness of the Panamanian rule of law, which would be reflected in the patronage character of an obese public administration, irremediably inefficient, with an irresistible propensity for influence peddling and corruption. It would also explain why decision-makers are usually recruited from among the most incompetent people in the country.

This diagnosis has been articulated or promoted mainly by currents of opinion with militant libertarian thought or by membership, which, although in the minority, have an increasingly developed hegemonic vocation.

His proposal for the management of the pandemic was to move from a collective management model to one based on individual responsibility, promoted by the use of slogans such as “you for the virus”. His proposal to fund the country’s response to the pandemic has been austere, mainly in the form of cutting civil servants’ salaries, also justified as a gesture of solidarity with those who have lost their jobs in the private sector.

An important part of its political logic has been to divide Panamanian society into two parts: a working class, defenseless and abused, facing a government that represents a corrupt political elite and tends to be authoritarian. This authoritarian characterization is important because it brings Panamanian citizenship back to one of its archetypes and, therefore, with a great capacity for mobilization: the crisis of the late 1980s, when the Civil Crusade – a national movement formed by civic, business and professional organizations, among others – faced the authoritarian regime that included the current ruling party, the PRD.

Institutionally, those inclined to this explanation have been very concerned about legislative activity during the pandemic, not only because of its obvious illusions, but also because ideologically they see it as the worst expression of l interventionist statism. In this sense, a fraction of the actors who promote this current of opinion recently launched an initiative that would lead to the establishment of a parallel constituent assembly, even without explicit proposals, but with a clear objective of destitution and symbolically redemptive.

The structural inequality argument

Those who defend this idea base their explanation on the country’s social, political and economic inequalities. The central argument is that although Panama has experienced high – and sometimes very high – economic growth rates over the past fifteen years, the great wealth generated by Panamanian society has not been geared towards strengthening public provision of basic services such as health and education. and housing.

To socio-economic inequalities, they add an unequal access to power that would be obtained through the financing of electoral campaigns, which inclines decisions in favor of private business interests or those related to the provision of these services which should be public. According to this explanation, it is in this way that commercial openings, which have proved to be inopportune, are justified and that most people are left to their own devices or to the irregular and insufficient provision of government aid.

It is argued that this context generated conditions that worsened the epidemiological situation. First, the inability of informal workers – around 50% of economically active people – to confine themselves to their homes because they are forced to work. Second, the poor housing conditions of many families made the confinement unbearable. And third, the deep digital divide has prevented thousands of children from continuing the virtual educational process to minimum acceptable standards.

This explanation has been articulated mainly by unions, university professors, intellectual statesmen and young leftists. However, so far, they have not convincingly articulated an economic proposal to fund the pandemic response, other than half-hearted ideas about an emergency tax on big fortunes or the recurring denunciation of the absence of an economic recovery plan.

The lack of a plan is part of their characterization of government as neoliberal and co-opted by vested interests. Although they tried, they struggled to convince the population that the economic and political elites are united by common interests.

Most likely, the “objective” diagnosis – if such a thing were possible – would share some aspect of the two explanations. Politically, it is important to verify the plausibility that the population gives to these general versions of the situation, because the positioning that the actors will reach through their ideas will be fundamental in predicting the characteristics of post-pandemic Panama.

Spanish translation by Maria Isabel Santos Lima

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