PANAMA CITY – Melquis Amador, a robust young man of 32 years, arrived sweaty at his house in an impoverished indigenous community of Panama, loaded up with aluminum bars and a bag full of cans that he collected after searching for two hours in the garbage from the capital’s main landfill. Since COVID-19 arrived, he has not found work, but he said “we have to move forward.”
The bag he carried on his shoulders was accompanied by a cloud of flies and a smell characteristic of residue that has spent too many hours in the burning Panama sun.
“Today was not a good day,” Amador told EFE on Friday as he separated the materials to sell. Around him play his children, including Andres, who has a disability.
“There are up to 150 people searching the garbage,” said Amador, who survived with informal work before the pandemic, a sector that employs about 50% of the population of the Central American country.
This Friday, he could not find food to feed his family. He also could not find copper, the most precious material among the inhabitants of Guna Nega, an indigenous community of 141 houses located on the slopes of Cerro Patacon, the main landfill in the Panamanian capital.
In Guna Nega, where the houses are made of sheet metal or wood and no one has face masks, only a few residents have kept their jobs since the first case of COVID-19 in Panama was confirmed on March 9.
Ignacio Chanapi, 36, is in charge of managing the community, and for a month and a half he has not received any income. Before the arrival of the new coronavirus, which has already killed 225 people in this country, he worked in a call center on minimum wage.
“Up to 15 families live here and there are 141 addresses. Eighty percent of the residents have to go up to the dump,” Chanapi told EFE at the entrance to Guna Nega.
The Panama Solidarity Plan, which provides house-to-house bonds of $80 a month and bags of non-perishable foods to the population most affected by the mandatory confinement to stop the spread of COVID-19, helps the residents of Guna Nega twice a month.
Several neighbors complain that the products do not cover more than two meals, and they have not received the help of the new digital social bonds obtained through ID numbers to spend in supermarkets.
Guna Nega, in which Gunas and Embera, two indigenous groups of Panama, reside, sits on the slopes of the Cerro Patacon landfill and its inhabitants cross a wooded and steep hill to reach the top that abruptly cuts the landscape: tons of garbage form mountains without any vegetation.
The expansion of the landfill has been displacing them and the garbage is already part of the community. At least 15 vultures haunt Guna Nega, hit by a strong smell of waste.
The large amount of garbage has taken its toll on the river that runs through half of the neighborhood. The children cross the tributary with the balance and elegance of those who have only been raised there, but their feet have burns and wounds infected by the contaminated water.
The inhabitants of Guna Nega have no other option, and that garbage-filled river is their main support, since they wash clothes and various utensils there.
Amador and Mistimilia Tovar, who belongs to the Embera ethnic group, face a complicated situation during their lockdown period: in addition to the two three-year-old twins and an eight-month-old baby, they have Andres, 6, who has a cleft lip and a tendon problem in his legs.
Andres was going to be operated on in the United States, but COVID-19 interrupted the process.
Close to Amador and Tovar lives the couple Wilson and Brisedia, both also Embera, with a similar situation: their son Ederson is eight years old and suffers from epilepsy and hydrocephalus. The drug he needs costs $64 at the pharmacy, and his father works for half the minimum wage – about $400.
These families are just two examples of what is happening amid the epidemic in this forgotten indigenous community, which is only a 10-minute drive from Panama City, the capital of one of the most unequal countries in the world.