Panama isolates migrants in remote jungle coronavirus unit

LAJAS BLANCAS, Panama (Reuters) - Panama has isolated nearly 200 migrants in a jungle camp to contain a novel coronavirus outbreak among a much larger group of Africans, Cubans and Haitians stranded by the pandemic in the remote Darien region.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

During a visit to the Lajas Blancas camp on Friday, migrants - some wearing blue surgical masks - lay under tarps or in tents, enclosed in a chain link fence. Medical workers in gowns, hair coverings and masks made the rounds taking temperature and blood pressure measurements.

Starting in May, authorities quarantined around 90 individuals who tested positive for coronavirus along with family members and close companions in the camp.

Of the four migrants Reuters spoke with at the camp, Cuban Francisco Turcas said poor food had sickened some members of the group. All had been in government facilities for weeks since emerging from the jungle into Panama on a long trek across the Americas.

“There are children, old people, pregnant women here. There are already many who have diarrhea,” said Turcas.

Migrants cannot leave the facilities without permission, though they may buy supplies from nearby stores.

Asked about the migrants’ living conditions, Panamanian Security Minister Juan Pino said the migrants were in good hands. Just six of them are still testing positive for the virus, he said.

Roughly 2,500 migrants were stranded in Panama when Latin American countries began shutting borders to halt the spread of coronavirus in March.

Coming from as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo, they were following an established route to the United States that traverses much of South America and includes a perilous journey by foot through the Darien Gap, a notoriously impenetrable stretch of jungle stretching from Colombia into Panama.

The majority remain in camps in Panama’s Darien province. Pino said the migrants must be patient as they wait to resume their journeys.

“They have come from different parts of the world with the intention of heading north,” he said. “They have to understand that right now all the borders are closed ... because right now the world is confronting the virus. And the only way to combat it is to avoid mobility.”

A larger number of migrants are staying in another center in Darien called La Penita. Earlier this month, Panama’s national border agency said it imposed unspecified new security measures after migrants turned violent during repeated attempts to leave La Penita.

The government will soon begin constructing a new shelter with space for more than 500 people, Pino added.

Wesley Lalune, a Haitian migrant who has been in the camps since early May, said he tested positive for the virus but has since recovered. He said he and his family are satisfied with camp conditions.

“Every day doctors come to ask if anyone has fever, if anyone is in pain,” he said. “I am doing well, more or less.”

Reporting by Abraham Teran; additional reporting by Dave Graham and Elida Moreno; writing by Julia Love; editing by Richard Chang