During the first few weeks of January, I had the opportunity to visit my family in Panama. As I stepped outside the airport, I was greeted by the hot, humid air and taxi men desperately calling for passengers.
After not being able to see my family for two years, I couldn’t give them a long tight hug like we were used to. Coming from a Latino culture in which greetings always include a hug and a kiss, an elbow tap wasn’t enough to show how much we had missed each other.
During my stay, I saw how folks carried rubbing alcohol spray bottles to sanitize their hands and practiced social distancing in public spaces. But even as they try to comply with health orders, the country is at COVID-19 level 4, which is considered very high according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When touring around the capital and rural areas, I noticed people wearing surgical, N95, and KN95 masks along with plastic transparent face shields to enter public spaces and walk in the streets. They didn’t seem to complain even as the 35-degree sun scorched their skin.
On Jan. 22, the day I landed in Vancouver International Airport, an anti-vaccine protest had taken place in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, where hundreds of maskless protesters gathered with anti-vaccine and anti-mask slogans. The protest was the sixth “World Wide Freedom Rally” in Vancouver.
I arrived from a country where adequate access to healthcare is primarily determined by location and financial status. Then hearing how Vancouverites, who live in a country with universal health care, rallied just because they don’t want to get vaccinated or wear masks seems absurdly privileged.
The reason it sounds privileged is because people who live in countries like Panama don’t have the luxury of getting together to protest against vaccine or mask mandates. Folks know that if they get infected by COVID-19, the health care system cannot guarantee their recovery.
The country’s hospital system is divided into private and public. The private system is mainly used by those who can pay hospital bills out of pocket, and in return they get more dedicated care. Public hospitals also provide care for patients, but because most of the population uses the public health system there are long waiting periods, and at times lack of funding creates a shortage of beds. Most of the public hospitals are found in Panama City, leaving the rural areas without appropriate hospital facilities.
Anti-vaccine and anti-mask rallies argue that they are fighting for their freedom, but that isn’t the definition of freedom.
Folks who have travelled, who are educated in the struggles of countries around the world would know how lucky they are to be in a country like Canada.
To go for a walk or run during the night, to shop inside a grocery store full of food and vegetables, to have a good income, to have social programs for those struggling financially, and to have universal healthcare without directly paying out of pocket to enter hospitals is a privilege and freedom.
From Jan. 19 to Feb. 1, Panama had a total of 114,037 new cases. Getting vaccinated and wearing a mask doesn’t only help our province and our country, but it also helps to slow the spread in other countries, especially those who don’t have access to universal healthcare and who are currently struggling to keep up with new cases.