Panama: Red Cross volunteers help with COVID-19 prevention measures
Eneida Mejía, 46, is a widow and mother of three children. She is a professional coach and runs a martial arts academy with her older children. Like many similar enterprises, today its doors are closed in a bid to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
In the morning, rather than lying in, Eneida chooses to get up at 4 am to volunteer with the Panamanian Red Cross (PRC). She has been a volunteer for six years at the Colón committee's first responder's organization, and today she is helping out in her community by carrying out health screenings at the checkpoint the Ministry of Health has set up between the provinces of Colón and Panamá. Eneida checks the temperature of those passing through that area, shares information on basic biosafety and hygiene rules, and provides first aid where necessary.
"I prefer the 7 am to 3 pm shift because people pass by on their way to work. I like to greet them and wish them a good day," Eneida explains. She gets up very early, has breakfast and does some exercise. At 6 am, she is ready to head out to the checkpoint.
When Eneida and her fellow shift workers arrive at the checkpoint, the volunteers who are finishing their shift update them on what happened during the night. They then put on personal protective equipment, and begin carrying out health tests.
Some people now recognize us, and ask: 'How was your day, how is it going?' People send blessings for ourselves and our families... that encourages me to get through the day.
Many people are surprised to learn that the work Eneida and her colleagues do is voluntary and they do not receive a salary. "The truth is we do it for the love of humanity; to serve, support and help."
Eneida belongs to the First Responder Corps and she just has one more course module to complete before becoming certified as a first responder. "For me, it is a dream of a lifetime, and I am so close," she says longingly.
When she returns to her neighbourhood, she can't help herself: she gathers her neighbours together and shares the same prevention guidelines she has just repeated a thousand and one times for travellers at border control.
Prevention takes no breaks
The PRC station at the checkpoint in Colón is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with rotating shifts.
"Here, volunteers take people's temperature with a thermometer, and if a person has a high temperature, a form is filled out and they are advised to go to a medical centre," explains Elías Solís, president of the PRC.
(video in Spanish)
The checkpoint is located at this point due to the high concentration of vehicles, which helps health authorities to control movement. This community action taken by the PRC was made possible thanks to the financial support of the ICRC in March, as part of an initiative to provide material assistance to the region's National Red Cross Societies.
Jorge Muñoz has regional responsibility for the ICRC´s cooperation with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and believes it is very important to see first-hand the selfless and caring humanitarian work done by volunteers to help prevent and respond to the consequences of COVID-19.
I feel humbled and very proud to have been able to see for myself the dedication, courage and self-sacrifice with which our Panamanian colleagues are carrying out this work in long eight-hour days, come rain or shine, far away from their families. Take heart, together we will overcome this challenge.
Stepping up good habits during the pandemic
José Chong is a teacher, and during this period of physical isolation he prepares and teaches classes remotely. He devotes his free time to volunteering for the Red Cross. "Here in Colón, we are trying to support the community to prevent more people from becoming infected with COVID-19," he says.
"It is hard work, since we have to screen, or check the temperature, of all those who pass by here daily. We detected fever in someone, so we advised them to go to a medical centre to get tested."
José explains that the emergence of this pandemic led to an important change in the guidelines for individual hygiene and the use of personal protective equipment. "Hygiene is paramount. Handwashing, not touching your mouth, nose or eyes... we used to do all these things, but not as rigorously and extensively as we do now."
Our support as Red Cross to society is important, and here at this checkpoint and in our homes, we must maintain safe practices at all levels. Safety applies to everyone.
We will be here for as long as needed - until we are told that these screenings are no longer necessary. In the meantime, we show up for work, every single day.
As the saying goes, the shoemaker's son always goes barefoot: the head of our delegation in Panama, Giuseppe Renda, was also subject to the PRC's "screening." The verdict: mask placed incorrectly on face. "In a very diplomatic way, Eneida told me that I had my mask on the wrong way around," Renda admitted, ending the day on a humorous note.