(JAMAICA OBSERVER) — Four Jamaican missionaries stranded in Río Abajo, Panama, are seeking the Government’s assistance to return to the island, as they struggle to stay afloat in the Spanish-speaking country despite support from the Jamaican consulate in Panama City.
The missionaries, who are from St Ann and Kingston, said that they left the island on February 13 for the transcontinental country to continue the social welfare programme of their Apostolic Outreach Ministry.
Head of the group, Chief Apostle Winston Farquharson, who spoke on behalf of his colleagues — Ian Davis, Clive Levingston, and Tomika Brown — in a phone interview with the Jamaica Observer yesterday, said the group had initially planned on spending a month in Panama but had applied for a two-week extension to complete work.
Farquharson said it was after applying for the extension that word came that Panama was closing its borders due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus disease.
On March 16, the Panamanian Government announced that only citizens and foreign residents would be allowed to enter the country; and on March 22, the Government banned all international flights. On March 25 Panama suspended all domestic passenger flights from both local and international airports.
The move coincided with a decision by the Jamaican Government to close the country’s borders, on March 24, to incoming passenger traffic.
The missionary said since then there has been no clear word from the Panamanian Government on when it will reopen the borders.
Equally, he said that although the group has been given approval on the jamcovid website to return to Jamaica and members have return tickets, Copa Airlines, Panama’s flag carrier, has reportedly said that unless the Jamaican Government reaches out and agrees to a relief flight it cannot assist the Jamaicans.
“Hello, Ian, we understand the situation. At this time we do not have a scheduled flight on the route you mention. To link humanitarian flights, we require permits from both countries where we are going to operate. We recommend you go to your consulate and stay tuned to our social networks to be informed of our next humanitarian flights,” the airline reportedly said in a message to one of the missionaries.
The uncertainty has left the missionaries mentally fatigued, Farquharson noted, and he has been grappling with a heart condition which the situation has exacerbated.
Added to that, Panama has recorded more than 30,000 COVID-19 cases and over 600 related deaths. Just over 15,000 people have so far recovered from the virus there.
“We are finding it very difficult. We are very depressed and longing to come home. We have applied to the Jamaican Government and they said that it is okay for us to come, but Panama said that they have not gotten any confirmation from the Jamaican Government that they have agreed to a humanitarian flight. They said if they get that agreement we can go and they can pick up who is in Jamaica who want to come here. So this is the situation, from March we are stranded. So we are asking our Government to call them and arrange something for us, please,” the missionary pleaded.
Were it not for Judith Edwards, head of the Jamaica Consulate in Panama, Farquharson said, the group would have been homeless after they ran out of resources and money.
He said after reaching out to Edwards, she immediately responded and agreed to pay for their accommodation and food, but has since been unable to continue providing the latter.
“The response from Judith, I’m telling you, she is excellent. She, in a day and a half, called us after I e-mailed her. We were staying in a hotel and all our funds had finished and we didn’t have food or nothing and in a couple of days she found an apartment and put us. This woman, I have to let the prime minister know, is the best here.
“When we came she provided food for a while, but we could not expect that she would take up that responsibility for food for so long. So since that I am the only breadwinner trying to get things done,” the man said.
He told the Observer that they have reached out to colleagues in different countries for assistance and some in St Vincent and the Grenadines have responded by sending money for them to purchase food.
Asked about the assistance being provided to them by local churches, having gone to the country to assist these institutions, Farquharson said most were forced to close their doors and were unable to render assistance.
“To be truthful, after this thing (COVID-19) catch heat they back out because they also need help for their people. I asked them one and two times and they said they will, but only one brother from the church, who is a Jamaican, came and drop off food supply,” added Farquharson, who revealed that he has been a missionary for over 30 years.
The ministry, he said, has done work throughout the region in Trinidad & Tobago, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, and Panama, among other countries, but the virus is threatening to topple the programme.
“This thing come and everything has just been a disaster since. None of us sleep in the nights. It is damaging us mentally. All you do is look out the apartment window. You can’t go anywhere. You get certain days where only males shop and then only females, and you have to carry your passport and show number.
“It is hard to talk with people because of the language. This thing is getting to us, man. We are stressed. We’re on the last of our foodstuff; the very last,” he said.