PANAMA CITY – Several union groups marched through the streets of the Panamanian capital on Tuesday and residents blocked highways amid public protests to express discontent with the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some 300 union members from several groups set out – wearing facemasks and displaying banners – toward the National Assembly, where this week lawmakers will debate a controversial bill proposed by the government seeking to “protect” the jobs of workers affected by the pandemic, but which the union organizations say, constitute an unwarranted and damaging reform of the Labor Code.
“They are explicitly reforms to the Labor Code, the quarantine was temporary and we’re going on four months of total shutdown, where the government has not been able to resolve the food and medicine (situation), the assistant general secretary of the powerful Suntracs construction workers’ union, Abdiel Betancourt, told EFE amid chants and whistling.
The bill includes a package of temporary measures designed to last until Dec. 31 to minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the companies affected by rules such as paying a 13th month of salary – a bonus that a worker receives based on his salary – or extra days off.
This is the third “but not the last” day of protests staged by the unions, who say that “you can’t allow the government and the National Assembly to use the pandemic to make the few conditions and rights of the Panamanian working population worse.”
Meanwhile, in another part of Panama City, a group of residents in one of the poorest neighborhoods used large branches to block one of the roadways linking the country’s main highways to demand that the government ensure timely payment of the approved $100 subsidy to the portion of the public hardest hit by the pandemic.
The scenario has been played out in similar fashion for months since certain communities complain that the subsidies are not arriving to everyone in the country who is eligible.
Panama, with a pandemic death toll of 1,127 and 54,426 confirmed coronavirus cases, is the Central American country hardest hit by the coronavirus and in the No. 2 spot, after Chile, in Latin America, relatively speaking, even ahead of the United States, a situation that has forced the government to reimpose severe movement restrictions in the provinces that have borne the brunt of the crisis.
In recent weeks, Panama has been seeing a huge increase in virus cases with more than 1,000 newly confirmed cases each day, bringing hospitals to the brink of collapse and leading to a severe shortage of beds in intensive care units.
In the face of this, the authorities are establishing large alternative spaces to house and care for patients with moderate cases of the virus.
Health care personnel have also protested over the lack of supplies for COVID-19 patients and personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe on the job, and they are also saying that they are “exhausted” by the intense workdays dealing with the increasing caseload.