PANAMA CITY – Health officials are going door to door in a poor neighborhood of Panama’s capital where six to seven people living in a room in crumbling buildings makes for a perfect breeding ground for the novel coronavirus.
During this process, they have to deal with reluctant residents and even face threats of violence.
It is almost mid-morning on this cloudy Thursday in Panama City and already in San Miguel de Calidonia, which has a high incidence of the novel coronavirus, a testing station to detect the disease has been set up.
More than 22,500 people have been infected with COVID-19 in the Central American country, where at least 470 have succumbed to disease in the 101 days since the outbreak broke out.
Health ministry officials go up to the apartments to tell residents that the station has been set up to conduct PCR tests as well as rapid antigen tests, which can provide results in just 30 minutes.
Health teams coming to neighborhoods to conduct tests “is good because one lives here with the uncertainty of whether the neighbors have the disease or not. They (the neighbors) take off their masks while talking… right in front of you,” Cecilia Rodriguez, 57, told EFE.
Rodriguez said she wants to get tested even though she doesn’t have any symptoms and has also asked an elderly neighbor, whom she takes cares of and sells food to, to take the test or she’ll stop going to his house.
There has been a new outbreak in Panama that has led to a record numbers of new cases and deaths being registered in the last two weeks, with hotspots identified in the provinces of Panama, where the capital is located, and the adjoining West Panama, the country’s most populous province.
In these two provinces, out of Panama’s total of 10, movement has been restricted by gender to two hours a day according to the identity card number, while in the rest of the country there is only a night curfew.
The Calidonia district of the capital, where the San Miguel neighborhood is located, has recorded nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 infections, one of the highest in the country, according to the director of the metropolitan region’s health department, Dr Israel Cedeno.
“More than half have recovered but it doesn’t mean we’re going to lower our guard (…) Today we’re conducting a door-to-door operation, including swabs (PCR tests) and also rapid tests, and using the opportunity to hand out masks,” Cedeno added.
Up to Wednesday, the 101st day of the epidemic, 97,402 tests had been carried out in Panama – 2,103 in the last 24 hours – of which 26 percent have been positive, according to official data.
“They do come, house-to-house, but there are people who do not come down to get tested,” said Mercedes Maestre, a resident of San Miguel, who assured EFE that neither she nor her elderly parents, with whom she lives, have COVID-19.
The authorities are stressing the importance of diagnosing the disease in order to confine those infected and thus cut off the chain of transmission, Indalecio Navarro, the medical director of the Emiliano Ponce Health Center, explained.
The operation in San Miguel focused on two buildings on Thursday, out of the many others in this neighborhood, which also has high rates of violence.
Navarro described the socio-economic reality of the neighborhood as “quite precarious, because the buildings that have the most cases are condemned houses, in which up to six or seven people live in a room. Logically, it is because of this overcrowding that the cases have spread more.”
“Sometimes they threaten us that we cannot enter the area because they don’t want us to. They live in their own world and it is more difficult. The police are here with us every day, they give us a lot of support, but it is always more difficult to intervene anyway. But it is progressing, we have intervened quite a bit,” Navarro added.