Panama's 2nd biggest Indigenous group votes to ban masks

A cultural body for the Guna Yala people in Panama has voted to ban the wearing of face masks used to combat coronavirus infections, arguing “it is not a custom of our people.”

The measure would drop a requirement for masks in schools and forbid government officials visiting the territories of the Guna Yala from wearing them. About 34,000 Guna Yala people, the second-largest of seven Indigenous groups in Panama, live mainly on the Caribbean coast.

Ausencio Palacio, Panama's assistant minister of indigenous affairs, said that only the Health Ministry has the power to set public policy on such issues, and called the vote “a mistake.” He said the communities two congresses might have to consult with each other in November on the issue.

Palacio, a member of the Ngabe Buglé group, Panama's largest Indigenous community, said that up to now, Indigenous peoples had been observing lockdown and social distancing measures.

Palacio, who was himself hospitalized for a month with COVID-19, suggested the vote may have been in part motivated by anger in Indigenous communities that authorities have not recognized traditional, plant-based treatments for COVID-19.

In general, the country’s indigenous groups have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus.

Nationwide, Panama has recorded 129,000 cases and 2,600 deaths.