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Surviving the confinement

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.
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
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,