- May 26, 2020

This is one story as part of the Voices of People with Disabilities during COVID19 Outbreak series

Names may have been changed to protect the individuals mentioned in the story.


“How are we living the pandemic in Panama? I guess that depends on who you are asking. If you ask wealthy people, they are doing fine, but if you ask poor people, it is devastating,” said Ana, a Panamian woman with physical disability in an interview with the International Disability Alliance. 

“I don’t like how the government approached the social distancing measures. I don’t like using the words social distancing because it made me feel like I was being left helpless. For us, persons with disabilities, those words are important. I understand the need for physical distancing between people. But for me, the idea of having to be separated from my personal assistant is simply deadly, as I need assistance in many aspects of my daily life”. 

Anna is a 57 year-old Panamanian woman living in Panama City. She acquired physical disabilities in a car accident 25 years ago. She has been serving God as a nun for the last 35 years. Ana is also a professional in religious education, and studied management of educational institutions, at the beginning of her religious life. However, that ended soon after the accident, because she spent almost two years in a hospital bed. In 2000, she went back to her labor activities for three years. 

Panama enacted its disability legislation only in 1999; therefore, when the accident happened, Anna wasn’t covered by any kind of protection in relation to her disability. “As there wasn’t any legislation on the subject, the authorities concluded that retirement was the best option for me and they gave me a retirement allowance, instead of allowing me to work”.

Panama has a good health care system, Anna says. There is a social security scheme for workers, as in many other countries. However, the Ministry of Health also has special and cheaper hospitals for those individuals who do not contribute to the national social security system, where Panamanians or foreigners in need, can go to.  

According to Anna, persons with disabilities can benefit from public health services during the pandemic: “I consider that the social security system in Panama is good, although, it also has bad things. Nowadays, those persons with disabilities who are officially registered by the government have a special card that allows them to access free health services. However, disability-related clinical materials are not free and can be quite expensive”.  

Anna explains that at the beginning of the pandemic, the situation for persons with disabilities wasn’t optimal. “It has been very hard, but it has been improving.” 

“The disability law was enacted in 1999 and it was modified in 2016, and last year the executive regulations of the law were enacted. However, we are still invisible. But the pandemic has made us more invisible, for what I have observed in Panama and other countries.”

The government of Panama has a daily update on the COVID 19 situation. At the beginning of the crisis, persons with disabilities weren’t even mentioned in these updates. 

“In every country, including Panama, health officials started talking about how older people were a high-risk group. And I thought, ‘when are they going to mention us persons with disabilities or indigenous people?’. We were completely forgotten. Persons with disabilities were only mentioned until we started making noise through social media; we started making videos and uploading them in our social networks. I am the Founder, President and Legal Representative of an NGO in Panama which has given me the opportunity to be in touch with governmental decision-makers. So, I started calling all of them and explaining to them that the COVID 19 daily updates needed to address persons with disabilities. We are also a high-risk population, and no one was talking about it. I explained to the government representatives that it was important to address minority groups and their vulnerability during the pandemic: persons with disabilities, indigenous people, LGBT, people living in rural areas”. 

Anna adds that it is important that governments provide reliable information without stigma. She refers to a case of a young man with Down Syndrome who got infected with COVID 19 and then recovered. "That shows that yes, we are more vulnerable to getting infected, but we can survive the disease". 

Persons with disabilities and other minority groups were completely uninformed about the situation, which made them more vulnerable before getting infected with COVID 19. Panama has made a huge effort into training public servants in sign language in recent years. However, there were huge challenges associated with sign language interpretation during the first week of the pandemic, because, according to Ana, no one knew how to deal with the TV component: “the interpreters weren’t being well-framed, no one knew what to do with the face masks and the lips reading. Consequently, people were not well informed during that first week.” 

“We also made some suggestions to simplify language that was being used by the health officials: it was too hard and complicated for persons with intellectual disabilities. After we raised that point, the daily updates started using a simpler language.”

“When I saw the Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas’ press release, I immediately thought that her paper described exactly what we have been living through.” 

Panama has just lifted the mandatory stay home, yet, there are some good practices during the lockdown which can be helpful. For instance, the government was prepared to provide financial support to the citizens despite the social distancing measures: the national ID also functions as a  debit card to address the needs of poor people who can’t open a regular bank account. 

Moreover, during the lockdown, the government established an interesting system to allow people going out to cover essential needs: “There were some days reserved for women and LGBT, others for persons with disabilities and older persons, and others for men. This measure aimed to protect women and persons with disabilities from violence or abuse”, Anna says. 

A remaining challenge is the lack of accessibility in public transportation that prevents persons with disabilities from accessing health facilities.  

There are still many challenges to protect persons with disabilities in Panama. However, according to Ana, the COVID 19 crisis has made it clear that persons with disabilities need to raise communication channels with their governments. "We need to occupy high-level decision-making spaces to make ourselves visible and to obtain our rights”.

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