Even bigger big trouble in little Panama

Chaos reigns in Panama City in the lead up to COP10.

In August, Copwatch reported on disquiet in Panama about the award of $4,881,732.20 to a consortium tasked with organising the COP10 conference. Heavy criticism was directed at the government for spending such a large sum of money on bureaucrats when the country’s health service was struggling to cope.

“My God, with half of that money” complains Medical Director, Fernando Castaneda to La Prensa Panamá, “we can buy incubators for newborns, thousands of medicines, supplies, and equipment to replace all the damaged ones we have.”

Matters have developed further with the revelation last week, again by Panamanian news outlet, La Prensa, that the agreement has now been terminated.

“The Cabinet Council approved annulling the $5 million contract signed between the Ministry of Health (Minsa) and the Cop 10 Consortium to organize a biannual anti-smoking conference of the World Health Organization (WHO).”

Reports suggest that the consortium encountered extra costs and requested a further $2 million from the government. This was, understandably due to the political pressure the award had created, promptly rejected. At which point the consortium, equally promptly, withdrew from the contract. 

The upshot is that, with less than 2 weeks to go, the WHO has booked a convention centre in which to hold COP10 but has no-one to organise it. Delegates may be arriving in Panama City all dressed up but with nowhere to go. 

In other news, many COP delegates may view a possible rescheduling of COP10 with relief. The Panamanian public has been outraged at the recent award of a rumoured $400 billion contract with a Canadian mining company to exploit three square miles of Panamanian rainforest to extract copper. Protesters have been on the streets throughout the country chanting and waving banners with slogans such as “Panama is not for sale”. In Panama City itself, crowds of 30,000 protesters have clashed with the Police and Army using tear gas and what the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice page calls “riot control munition”.

There are fuel, gas, and food shortages and protesters have vowed to continue civil disobedience until the mining contract is cancelled, which does not look likely. Searching Twitter hashtags #Panama and #PanamaProtesta brings up disturbing images of angry chaos in Panama City. 

In June, Copwatch referred to previous protests which lasted for weeks on end. 

“Panama was rocked last year by a series of nationwide protests and blockades. They were prompted by cost-of-living concerns, exacerbated by deep-seated mistrust of government officials accused of feasting on taxpayer funds, and complaints about poverty, inequality and corruption in the country.”

BBC World reports that “Such a level of conflict – as massive as it is prolonged – has not been seen since the time of Manuel Antonio Noriega’s dictatorship” which suggests today’s protesters will be in it for the long run.

With around 1,200 delegates due to arrive in Panama imminently, the WHO must be concerned about how they can guarantee attendee safety, especially as protesters have expressed disappointment that the world’s media is not taking much notice of them. Heaven forbid they find out that high ranking government officials from 190 countries are due to convene at the convention centre in Panama City very soon. 

Copwatch can only imagine these two issues combined must be causing headaches amongst FCTC administrators. Perhaps they can reach out to one of their Pharmaceutical partners for a steady supply of Paracetomol. 

The WHO has had a run of extraordinarily bad luck with COP meetings in recent years. Prior to COP6, there was an Ebola outbreak in Africa and the Russians shot down a passenger plane just before Director General Margaret Chan travelled to Moscow to talk about tobacco with Putin. New Delhi saw the worst smog in living memory which closed 20,000 schools in the week the WHO turned up in the city to talk about the dangers of vaping at COP7. The pandemic wrecked plans for COP9 which had to be delayed by a year and held virtually. Now this for COP10.

Copwatch would like to say we have sympathy for such bad luck but, unlike the WHO, we don’t want to mislead you.

More trouble in little Panama

In June, Copwatch mentioned, in passing, that a series of nationwide protests and blockades had taken place in COP10 host country, Panama, recently. Cost-of-living concerns, mistrust of government officials, poverty, inequality and corruption have led to much discontent.

The upcoming arrival of 1200 delegates for the WHO’s conference in November is not likely to lighten the mood. Panamanian news outlet, TVN Noticias, has broken a story on Instagram which must feel like a slap in the face for the country’s struggling citizens. 

“In the midst of a crisis due to the shortage of medicines, medical supplies and hospital structures in poor condition, the Ministry of Health (Minsa) published on the Panama Compra portal a tender for $4,881,732.20 for the organization of a conference against tobacco.”

You can guess what’s coming next. 

“According to the publication made on the portal, this is an exceptional online listing procedure for hiring a company for the organization of the Tenth Conference of the Parties of the World Health Organization for tobacco control.”

It is unclear what is included in the funding, but over $4,000 per delegate sounds steep, perhaps they all receive 24 carat gold-plated invitations. Accordingly, some are more than unhappy that their taxes are being spent so lavishly on a junket for highly-paid civil servants to jaw about tobacco and nicotine. 

“My God, with half of that money” complains Medical Director, Fernando Castaneda to La Prensa Panamá, “we can buy incubators for newborns, thousands of medicines, supplies, and equipment to replace all the damaged ones we have.”

One must presume that Dr Castaneda feels strongly that Panama has its priorities somewhat skewed and that medical equipment is more important than trying to ban nicotine pouches. He has obviously not considered the pride and boost to self-esteem the Panamanian public will derive from hosting a conference that almost no-one knows is taking place and which is held behind closed doors.