Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo
This month, America´s Quarterly published the article: “Preparation is Key: Lessons from Panama´s Pandemic Response”. It is a very complete article, covering a multiple of angles, from political to scientific to social. As a Panamanian, my initial feeling reading it was a mix. Pride, for sure, but also a little embarrased having taken some really special things for granted. But if anything, this historic moment is giving the planet the opportunity to re discover its strengths and re think what is truly important.
Here are the four things I believe this article highlights that are the hidden strengths the world didn´t know about Panama (and that even Panamanians sometimes forget):
1. Our Scientific Past: let´s accept it, when you say “Panama” many things come up, but none of them relates to science. And yet, this country was from the very beginning fertile ground for scientific and technological research. This has given us some amazing scientific institutions and scientists, from the Gorgas Institute to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Our medicine schools have always been very strong and many of the practicing doctors in Panama trained in the USA and around the world. Our social security reaches far and deep, even as imperfect as it is. Also, because of our biodiversity, and richness of data (think that we have info of all sorts of things from how the forest grows to tropical diseases for basically a 100 years if not more), makes it a high destination for biologists and other disciplines to come here, interact between multi disciplinary teams and carry out their studies. Access to different microclimates and to Caribbean and Pacific in a matter of hours and access to laboratories all around the country is simply amazing. Not to mention this is where two continents met and oceans where parted. Biologically, it is pretty unique. How do I know all of that? because I used to work at STRI and during my time there I met some of the most fascinating people from Panama and around the world. Prior to that I used to work at an environmental ngo and even before that at Panama´s scientific secretariat, SENACYT. I am extremely proud of the amazing work all of our doctors and researchers are doing. They are true rockstars!
2. Our Existing Humanitarian Hub: because Panama is such a natural hub for trade, travel, and multinational business, the country had developed for years what is basically a humanitarian hub through the presence of many international organizations like United Nations, World´s Food Bank and others. This is nothing new, but something we always had as a nation, and to me one of the things we overlooked the most. Panama´s very coat of arms was designed to portray peace, progress, uniting and being of service to the world. It literally reads: Pro Mundi Beneficio. This is something the world doesn´t know, but I find it is not only a source of constant inspiration but deeply Panamanian. And it showed in another hidden strength:
3. Our Capacity for Solidarity: When you peel the onion of the many and incredibly different/mixed layers that make the Panamanian DNA, at the very core you´ll find a common thread of peace and the willingness to help. I´ve seen this happen from the trivial to the important. From the person asking for an address to how communities immediately networked between family and friends to share resources during the 1989 USA Invasion. When coronavirus hit, the concept of solidarity brought us together. And it also activated the next hidden strength:
4. The Strength of Being Small: We joke that in Panama, you are related to everyone else, and that frankly the 6 degrees of separation here is like… 2 (and maybe). Networks activate really fast and create channels very efficiently. Circles of families and friends tend to be very tight, each knot being married to another and best friends with the next. Everyone wants everyone else to be safe. Also makes it easy in times of emergency for a central government to do its job, and to make alliances as fast as needed. From hotels becoming hospitals, to transportation and supply chain, to helicopters to anything. A lot of these resources are one phone call away and everyone is pitching in with generosity. Every night, the President himself speaks on national tv, which is shown in real time in all channels, providing updates and try to give an uplifting message. And then, the team from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Security take turns to present the reality of what the statistics where for the day and week, the meassures taken and what to expect next.
All the business sectors are working hard as part of different teams to work on plans for the next steps after the storm passes. They all understand what the article so very well placed in its title: Preparation will be the key.
What will the future bring us, it might be too early to know. Nothing will be easy and it will be a new world. But there is another Panamanian joke I like to tell on how we know we are small but we love thinking big: (and this is a fact!) the other motto we have is “The World´s Center, The Universe´s Heart”. Or, like our poet Demetrio Korsi once simply wrote, Panama is “the world´s bellybutton”. The joke is that even if you don´t notice us, we are at the very center of everything.