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Surviving the confinement

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Streets of Casco Viejo, Panama City, May 2020

Here comes a copy of the circular, sent out to friends via email, which I sent out on 29th May 2020:

Dear Friends,
 
We have been on the continuous lockdown for 13 weeks here in Panama. If all goes well, things should get better after the weekend, and as of 1st June, we will be allowed to move around the city with more liberty. There will still be restrictions, physical-distancing, we will still need to carry on with tele-working, but in all honesty, the prospect of being able to go for a walk makes me happy.
 
The period of last three months has been, by far, some of the strangest experience of my professional, and to a large extent personal life. I know, this is not a very original thing to write… essentially all people reading this email are probably able to state the same. The recent events have been challenging not only to our communities, but to most of us personally too. This being written, I wanted to share with you how I have coped so far, and what I have learnt.
 
Not being as tough as you would like yourself to be
 
As I live alone in Panama City, I have gone through the confinement mostly with my own company, well, at least when it comes to physical interactions with people. I talk to colleagues, family and friends daily via Skype, WhatsApp, WebEx, etc., but with an exception of going food shopping, I have not had interactions with anyone for all this time. I would lie if I said that this hadn’t affected me. I have had lots of miserable and self-pity moments, and it has taken lots of energy and self-discipline to find ways to stay sane, and mentally fit. It has been tough and difficult to recognise these kind of vulnerabilities.
 
Inequalities
 
Despite writing about all my vulnerabilities I have written above, I realise that I am a very privileged human being on so many levels. I do not have any major existential issues at the moment. I have a job that I love, I have an employer that looks after me in a way that most people on the planet could only dream of, I have supportive and friendly colleagues, I have a comfortable accommodation, I have means to live a very decent life, I have a loving family and caring friends in various parts of the world. I have no reason to complain. Yet… we are humans… and we sometimes complain, as you have seen in my previous paragraph. Perhaps, it is human to grumble, but the confinement has made me feel ashamed of doing so, more than ever before. Looking at what is happening to so many people, right around me – here in Panama, elsewhere in the continent, and the world… I have been left with a sensation of injustice, powerlessness and even guilt.
 
Perhaps, it is because of my profession, or a fact that I always live overseas and travel extensively, I tend to pay a bit more attention at the challenges faced by migrants, especially refugees. The coronavirus, or the social consequences that it has created to migrants, is leaving me shattered. I am using the word ‘shattered’ on purpose, with an understanding of how strong this adjective is. Although Panama, compared to a lot of other countries in the world, can’t be considered as the place of major human rights abuses; the present emergency settings, have left thousands of poor migrants (including refugees) in an inhuman vacuum, without access to income, and thus services, food, accommodation. Just few weeks of the coronavirus confinement pushed the people to even bigger poverty, struggling to survive – essentially. It is overwhelming, as it touches all spheres of their lives: fear of ending up on the street; hunger; fear of getting sick; not being able to afford medicines and medical services; fear of going into debts which you would not be able to pay ever; losing hope in being able to ever have a decent life; fear of being pushed into coping detrimental coping mechanism (prostitution, trading drugs, involvement in crime); fear of seeing your own kids not being able to enjoy the innocence of childhood; being dead worried about your loved ones whom you left behind in your native country… The list goes on and on… and I am sure that you can just imagine it, so I will stop. You get the point
 
Coping
 
So in order not to give in to my own weaknesses and the gloom of the inequalities that make me feel bad and guilty, I have tried to find ways to face all that bothers me… tried to cope. A few things really helped me:
 

  • You know that I love my work… this time around, my work has actually helped to save me. What I mean by that is that I have tried to study and follow the issues that we deal with professionally. I have tried to give an extra effort to think a bit out of the box, and contribute to whatever in our power to make our projects better. No, I am not saying that we have done enough, and I am far from saying that there are no frustrations and disappointments! What I am saying is that trying to do my best for our projects in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia or Ecuador etc., has helped me to stay a little less anxious, despite the overwhelming tragedies that we experience.
 
  • Engaging in a personal project: some of you may remember that I have decided to put some effort in my personal project (not related to work), and I have engaged in supporting some of the migrant families in Panama in their efforts of going through this crisis with dignity. With a support of many of you, the project has succeeded to provide food and accommodation during the period of over 2 months to 9 households. And while I understand that what we have achieved has helped our migrant friends substantially, the undertaking has given me so much joy… I guess the joy of joining hands together into something that make sense to me, the joy of interacting with the migrants and being allowed to be a part of their lives a little bit… The project has definitely been the major contributor to my mental balance and sanity, even with a realisation that having chance of working with 9 families is just a drop of what should be done.
 
  • Family and friends: communication technology of today has made the whole difference. I have made lots of effort to talk and write to people. I have had amazing conversations and have written and received messages from so many of you in essentially all corners of the world. I have actually been thinking of that the other day. I have got you… all of you everywhere in the world. It is a nice feeling to realise to be a part of the group that is so global… the best what globalisation can offer… energy and ideas of people from various cultures, environments, personal experiences! Splendid!
 
  • Reading, watching movies and studying: I have read a few fascinating books, watched countless number of cheesy trash on Netflix and have been very strict in perfecting my Spanish. Using Spanish has been stimulating, fun and actually therapeutic. I have actually managed to read my first full book in Spanish (and actually understand it well), and soaked the feeling of Latin America by watching ‘telenovelas’ from various countries of the continent !
 
And the ball is in your corner now… and I am waiting for your message. I genuinely hope that you are all healthy well, and in good spirits! Please do not get frustrated or down by what you may see around yourselves… Stay well and write!
 
Hugs and lots of warmest wishes to you and your loved ones,
Roman
 

The new normal

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Plaza Herrera in Casco Viejo, Panama City, May 2020

May is coming to its end, and finally after 13 weeks of a strict confinement, Panama is moving to the next phase of reopening the country. As of 1st June, people will be allowed to freely move around within their own municipalities and use some of the country's services. There will still be a great deal of restrictions, as the country is working out its path to 'the new normality', but certainly, we are all looking forward to regaining some of our liberties.

We will still continue working from home. The administration offices of various institutions will only be allowed to resume their normal operations in next phase of the reopening of the economy. However, in anticipation to this, we are already preparing our new protocols and rules relating to how our premises will function, when we finally get there.

As a big part of my work involves travels and visits to project locations, for my a major challenge is to establish how I would be able to do that, in a safe, but also effective manner. There is certainly no use for me to travel, even if I find flights, if I am required to undergo two weeks of quarantine in each of the locations that I visit. It is therefore that we reach out to authorities of the countries where we are likely to travel and negotiate with them procedures and protocols for the potential trips.

There is some hope that some countries will scrap the entry restrictions, at least temporarily, anyway. It will take time, but we will get there sooner or later. Here, I am also extremely eager to see some progress so that I can plan some visits that are well overdue. I really would like to visit Mum in Poland and Tahir in Canada. Besides, I really should find a way to get to Portugal too.

As things move forward, I will be reporting to you on the plans. Who knows, perhaps, we will be able to meet in person somewhere, sooner rather than later.

The European Union proposes increasing its international humanitarian budget for the period between 2021-2027

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In the Province of Salta, Argentina, February 2020

The media is bringing us some potentially good news from Brussels. The deal is far from being done, however, it seems that the EU Member States and the European Commission appear to be in favour of a substantial increase of the aid budget of the European Union to be spent on helping victims of humanitarian aid crises around the globe. The proposal comes from the recognition of the challenges that the most vulnerable communities around the world face (from climate change, wars, conflicts, forced displacements, etc.), but also from the obligation of the wealthier nations to bear costs of responding to disasters in a fairer way (at the moment, at the level of around €1 billion/annually).

Let's hope that the trend continues and the budget proposal is defended at least in its level.

Polish mothers celebrate!

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With Mum, at the beach in Bonaire, January 2013

26th May is known as the Mother's Day in Poland.

The celebrations in 2020 are going to be slightly more restrictive than usually, given that the COVID restrictions are still largely in place.

However, the restrictions, or I should the drama that we are experiencing in the world these days, makes me realise how lucky I am to have my Mum to be my Mum…

I genuinely do not know how to express my gratitude and love that I have to my mother… so perhaps, it is just better to just say that I am so profoundly grateful and happy for my mother's unconditional love, for her dedication, for her humanity, strength, bravery, sense of humour, for being so amazingly hard-working, for never giving up (especially on me), for her friendship, for her patience, smile, beauty, companion, forgiveness, and the list goes on and on…

The happiest holiday, Mama Ela! I love you!

May 2020 has nearly ended, and Panama still continues its strict confinement policies

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The house in Casco Viejo, the old district of Panama City, where my flat is located, May 2020

It is well over two months since we have not been allowed to move around and are on the strict lockdown here in Panama. It is tiring and frustrating to everyone, but I think that people take the whole situation in a very mature and certainly understanding way. It is admirable, provided that thousands are left with no income, the state aid to the affected individuals is far from being comfortable, not to mention all other social consequences of the measures.

The good news is that the policies that were introduced, potentially have helped Panama avoid the situation where its health system collapses. It is stretched, things are stressful, but people are being given all the medical attention when needed and, the health personnel across the country heroically save thousands of lives, without leaving anyone out! My highest respect to everyone involved in making this happen for this!

There are signs that things may be changing soon.
This week, the government has finally allowed the public to exercise, jog, run or walk within one kilometre from their residences. Also, few businesses have been allowed to reopen on a limited scale. What's more, it appears there will be further easing-up coming next week, for which we all look forward to. More business should be given permissions to re-start, and if all goes well, the public will be able to move around more freely, as long as the individuals observe some basic principles of physical distancing and hygiene. The national airline, Copa, is preparing to relaunch its operations to some of the countries, which is crucial for us, so that we can deliver on our own work and obligations towards partners that we deliver the humanitarian operations in the region.

For me personally, the lockdown, has brought lots of adjustments to the way I lived and many new challenges that I needed to, or decided to deal with.

Given that part of my job deals with issues relating to civil protection, much of my work has been dealing with helping
arranging the repatriation flights from countries of Latin America and the Caribbean for the residents of the EU, who got stranded across the region. For various reasons, it has been a very stressful experience, though now, that most of the work is over, and most of the people are flown back to their homes, it feels good to have participated in this historic operation.

When it comes to humanitarian side of our work, recently we are extremely busy in arranging a big fundraising event for Venezuela, an event that we refer to as
'The Venezuela Pledging Conference', whose aim is to present to international donors the humanitarian needs related to the crisis in Venezuela, and encourage them entering into commitments to provide funds for the Venezuelans who need support. The event will take place in a few days' time, and I will write about it some time later.

I am also very busy trying to
understand the extent of the spread of the coronavirus in the Amazonia. You may have heard that South America, especially Brazil are now the epicentre of the pandemic. We are far from where we should be, when it comes to rolling out humanitarian assistance there, but there is lots of efforts when it comes to mobilising funds, logistics and partners to intervene.

More privately,
I have been very busy in following up on my personal project, assisting the migrants in Panama, the action that personally made me very happy, however small it is.

Finally, among all other things, I have been really strict in trying to perfect my Spanish, and when I look at it from the perspective of two months, I notice lots of progress!

I hope that next time I write here, I will be able to report on some progress in our work and on further steps of returning to 'normality'. Until then, please look after yourselves, and stay well and healthy!

And the lockdown blues continues...

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Living-room in my apartment in Panama City, May 2020

I am quite disappointed, as I hoped that I would be able to get out of my flat this weekend and walk. The reality is different, as the Panamanian authorities have decided not to ease-up the restrictions to the public yet. It is already the beginning of ninth week, and it is increasingly difficult.

A friend of mine has managed to have a very interesting book to me. So, I am reading a fascinating however a bit depressing 'Winners Take All' by Anand Giridharadas. The author tries providing analyses and examples of why the wealthy and mighty entrepreneurs fail 'changing with world' and deal with the most urging problems that the humanity faces. So far, the book proves to be a thought-provoking and to some extent an eye opener to why the wealthy behave as they do. I also need to admit that the examples given make me think of that humans, in general, regardless of their economic status do like defending their actions. It is a natural thing to do. However, justifying your actions when you have disproportionally large amount of power over resources (thus lives of other people) is trickier to defend. Given this, in my mind, we all need to confront ourselves with questions on how our behaviour contributes to well-being (or lack of it) of the societies we live in. I may reflect more on what I have read, after I finish the book. For now, these are my first reflections.

There is a new development related to COVID in Latin America, which is catching my attention. As the societies in the region take a major hit in various levels, some individuals and organisations try finding scapegoats for their poor performance in dealing with the crisis. Sadly, it is the migrants that are often pointed the fingers at. We receive reports from countries across the region of increased xenophobia towards the foreigners, so much so that migrants become so scared that they go to hiding, or take risks to leave their 'newly adopted' countries in search of a better and safer future elsewhere. This is dramatic, exposes people to unnecessary suffering. Inhumane, by all accounts, as far as I am concerned. Very sad!

On a positive note, Mum and family in Nowy Sacz continues to be fine and safe, and so does Tahir in Toronto. This, definitely, makes me happy and puts me at ease.

I hope, you all keep well and safe!

Supporting migrants in Panama: an update on the project

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Isa, Julio and their son Ignacio: one of the families that benefited from the project. Panama, April 2020

You may remember that some weeks ago, I issued a personal appeal, in which I pleaded for helping me in providing support to economic migrants and refugees in Panama, whose livelihoods opportunities were compromised or literally wiped off, due to the economical shock that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.

For the sake of transparency, I thought that I would post here some updates on how the project is going. Here comes the letter that I sent out to friends, who had helped me in sourcing the funds to vulnerable migrants in Panama City:

Dear All,
 
I hope that the email finds you well!

In the attachment, you will find the latest update on the income and expenditure of our Panamanian project. You will have seen that we have already managed to support our migrant friends with nearly $4,900, and that we have together collected a bit over $5,800. I am so amazed by your support! Thank you so much!
 
I realise that one may argue that helping few people, given the scale of the issues that are being experienced, is not a lot. I, however, believe that we have managed to help 9 households from going into some major trouble in their lives. For nearly two months, we have provided means for them to get food, and in some cases pay for accommodation costs too! On top of everything else, there are few of our friends that received ‘one off’ payment, as they really needed a bit of support too. I think that you can all be very proud of yourselves to have extended your helping hand to people that need it. I do not want to sound pompous, but I really think you are all remarkable human beings! THANK YOU!
 
We have just received news from the media that Panama is starting its process of ‘return to normality’. It is meant to start on 13
th May, just two days away from now, and is divided to 6 phases. The first phase is not changing lots of things yet, so we are far of being out of the woods, but something has started to change. We do not have dates on when the following phases will be introduced, but I will keep you all updated.
 
Then, while I think that some of our migrant friends will be able to slowly start getting independent as things gradually open up, I am sure that some will need the support for a little longer. I am monitoring everyone from our ‘beneficiary’ list to ensure that I understand how much support they may need, and when they could become independent. At this stage (my own thoughts), I think some of the men will be able to get back to some activities earlier, as their jobs may be in demand sooner (guards at the parking lots, handymen, cleaner in private apartments). I am however more worried at the employment opportunities of some of the ladies from the list. They normally work in hotels as cleaning staff. The tourism has collapsed and will not recover anytime soon, I fear. I think, they may find it more difficult to become more independent. Everyone is at risk, but I think women are exposed to more threats and are likely to be pushed more easily to coping strategies that we would prefer not to see. From what I understand, going back home to the countries of origin is not a viable option for any of our friends. They are in Panama, as they needed to flee from oppression, maltreatment and extreme poverty from Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua and Honduras. Bottomline is that even if things are very difficult for them here in Panama, my take is, they are still better off here than they may be in their places of origin (they all come from extremely poor backgrounds).
 
So, once again, thank you for being so supportive. I am grateful, and very, very proud of having you as friends!
 
Sending warmest regards! Please do stay well and do send news, when you can,
Roman

A wake-up call?

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Arriving to Panama City , on the flight from Buenos Aires, February 2020

I will not lie. I miss travelling, I miss it a lot! Eight weeks of the lockdown is becoming burdensome to my mind and makes me anxious and miserable. I miss being around people, I miss discovering, I miss challenges, I miss TRAVELLING! Yet, I am accepting that I will need lots of patience before things will start falling into its place, whatever 'its place' is going to mean in the future. However painful, I am also accepting that I may not be able to have a chance to meeting my loved ones, or visit the places that I consider to be home for a long time, perhaps even not in 2020. I do not like the thought of it, but I am slowly getting adjusted to a the concept that I will not visit Poland, Portugal or Canada in months to come.

It is interesting how the whole COVID-19 situation has challenged me… I consider myself to be a person, who is not too concerned with certain inconveniences which a lot of other people may be very uncomfortable with. I am not concerned with the physical pain that much, falling sick, or getting injured. The last decade or so has taught me to learn how to live in places where there are wars or conflicts. I think that I am able to find a balance and thrive in conditions that are trying. This however is only true, as long as I have people around me, and have a freedom to move around (even if not large distance). COVID-19 confinement is teaching me though that I am poorly prepared to live on my own, and live without the lifestyle that I have developed for myself.

Travelling, being with people, doing humanitarian work defines what I am, and has allowed me cultivate my identity. I still disagree with and hate the idea that someone or something may take it away from me…Yet, whether I like it or not, it is happening now! I am stripped from the essence of what I adore, and it hits me! I hope that what is happening in my life is not a permanent reality, but then, deep inside, I know that it is a wake-up call, it is an opportunity that I am given by life so that I can take steps to wean off from my dependency I am living. One thing that I have learnt is that it is good to have options and not allow yourself to be reliant on something that prevents you from appreciating other opportunities that may be around you. COVID-19 is proving that I have messed up here massively. I am beginning to comprehend that I may have put too much on my energy to some very limited passions, and have pushed myself to the corner with no way out. It is not a comforting realisation and I still do not know how to deal with it, how to move forward. Some first ideas are formulating in my mind, though. These are bleak, and far too feeble to share them at this stage. Not because I do not want to, but rather I am unable to do so. It is still too early to contemplate something in a way that would make sense to me, let alone to anyone else. The only hope I have at this stage, is that I will take a chance that I am being offered!

On a completely different note: good news is reaching me from Toronto! Tahir is writing that he is re-starting his professional assignment again. As of today, he is going back to work, where he is going to be involved in organising deliveries of medical supplies to hospitals and medical centres across Canada. Needless to say that I am very proud of him!

No signs of easing. The lockdown in Panama continues

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Playing with the camera during the lockdown: the staircase in the building, where my apartment is situated, Panama City, May 2020

We are all a little disappointed here in Panama. Two day ago, we all hoped that the government would announce to the public a clear roadmap on how the country would start opening up, after the measures taken to contain the spread of COVID-19. Today, we still know nothing, and the frustrations are growing. There are no indications of dates when the restrictions may ease up, causing concerns to the citizens and residents of the country.

Many of the country's poor are scared and left without survival means. Even if your family is eligible to some state support (80 USD/month/family), the amount is not feasible to survive on, let alone that the system does not incorporate large groups of the society, such as refugees or migrants, and does not always reach the people, who theoretically should be receiving this aid. The economic hardship forces people to go on streets and protest. We have seen the increase of protests in various parts of the city and beyond, as people demand creating conditions where they would have additional means for their families to survive on. The protests are increasingly violent resulting with threats to physical well-being of those, who already suffer disproportionally, but also, compromise the epidemiological gains of the confinement that Panama has imposed.

Given the above situation,
I am very grateful to my friends, who help me support some of the migrants in Panama City, who ended up stripped from their income as the businesses where they had worked before the pandemic closed down. I am very aware that eight families/households that benefit from the support is a drop in the ocean, but another way of looking at it, is that at least these people have less existential challenges. To those of you, who have managed to support the little project, I would like to direct my sincere gratitude. Thank you very much!

Easing up restrictions?

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Cole Province, Panama, January 2020

The President of Panama, Laurentino Cortizo, announced earlier today that a special commission will be set up to lead the process of gradual abolishments of COVID-19 restrictions in the country. The dates have not been suggested yet, but it is believed that we should see some easing up of the measures as of the middle of May 2020. It is still around two weeks to go, but given that we are about to start the eighth week of the lockdown, it does bring some hope!

Keep your fingers crossed! It is time to leave the house!