A pioneer woman chief who helped her community through the pandemic
Omayra, the indigenous leader who embodied the strength of Ancoré at the height of the pandemic.
COVID-19 challenged Omayra Casamá, a 52-year-old Emberá social worker who upheld the family legacy of botany and had her community adopt protective measures and vaccines.
Dressed in an Emberá paruma, Omayra Casamá, an indigenous leader who played a key role in her Ipetí Emberá community during the pandemic, begins her day by the cooking fire. With her daughter and mother, she cooks breakfast for the almost 30 members of her family. After bathing in the river that runs through the community, she climbs the steps up to the second floor of the big hut. In the midst of parumas for sale and a traditional Emberá altar, she sits down to peel the plantains they will eat to start the day.
That scene reveals part of who Omayra is: a Social Work graduate who is a leader first in her family and then in her community. With a firm voice and strong disposition, she recalls —while frying plantains seated on the floor— how she “broke barriers” two decades ago when she became the first female chief of the Emberá ethnic group. “Everything is a struggle,” she says.
The community, home to some 700 people, is located about two and a half hours east of Panama City in the Darién province. Omayra arrived there in the 1970s. When she was six years old, her family was displaced from the Bayano area due to the construction of a hydroelectric dam.
For that displacement, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Panamanian State in 2014.
Omayra managed to turn the pain of losing their ancestral lands into strength. Today, she is a community leader who exudes perseverance, hard work, and community: all at the same time, every day.
Ipetí Emberá also suffered the consequences of COVID-19. And that decades-old attitude towards struggle saw the light of day again during the most difficult period of confinement. Faced with the shutdown of primary care in health centers, Omayra, her daughter and the then community chief promoted dialogue with the Ministry of Health so that they could resume activities in their community by performing tests and providing primary care and medicines.
“We felt like we were on an island,” Omayra says. Her role was to convey community needs to the government, so that the aid distributed by the authorities would reach the inhabitants of Ipetí.
She also played a central role in the adaptation into indigenous languages of the messages and recommendations given by the health authorities during the pandemic. This was done through a project managed with the help of the British Embassy, in which Omayra lent her voice to explain to the community, in Emberá language, the risks posed by the COVID-19 virus, how to take care of themselves and what to do in case they became infected.
The father figure and a family legacy
Omayra goes downstairs to the nursery. Her eyes brighten as she walks through the plants and points to the species her father used for botanical medicine during the pandemic. With her index finger she points to the path that her father, Reinerio Casamá, used to walk to collect oregano and the herb they call “desbaratadora”, which he would later turn into a tea to alleviate COVID symptoms among the villagers. He was the community botanist: “At that time it was the only care available, and he saved many lives,” Omayra says. Meanwhile, she walks through the nursery and points to other plant species: espavé, amarillo, oak, mountain almond, cocobolo, cedar and borojó, which she identifies as the typical Emberá fruit.
Her mother and daughter say Omayra inherited the hardworking, caring, and strong nature of her father Reinerio, who died from COVID-19 due to lack of oxygen. He was one of the first in line when they came to do the tests and wanted to be among the first to get the vaccine when it came out, something Omayra recalls in tears.
The community botanist also knew the importance of maintaining preventive measures and supporting the work of Western medicine. “I remember my dad saying: ‘Don't stop taking what the doctor gave you, but at the same time, you are also going to continue taking the treatment we are giving you. It doesn’t matter who saved you; the important thing is that you are healthy and that you can recover’”, recalls Omayra.
For the Emberá leader, the pandemic demonstrated that ancestral knowledge must work together with scientific knowledge. “We will not heal if the Emberá natural medicine does not go hand in hand with Western medicine,” she adds. Her dream is to have a health center where the community midwives and botanists coexist with medicine in a comprehensive health system that “heals and saves lives in practice”.
Her father's death prompted her to take up his legacy and put herself in charge of community health work.
“I felt responsible for my family, I feel responsible. His legacy makes me draw on my own strength, on the strength of Ancoré to be able to continue challenging the process of construction that we women precisely seek as guardians, as translators, as knowers,” she says.
That is also why, through her leadership on different fronts, Omayra encouraged the community to get vaccinated once the Panamanian Ministry of Health began to distribute the first doses to vulnerable groups.
The role of community leaders in reinforcing childhood vaccination
Panama is a country with good vaccination coverage —about 90 per cent of the population had the full vaccination schedule in 2018, according to the latest official information— and has one of the best immunization programmes in the region, according to Health Director for Eastern Panama, Carlos Batista.
The pandemic, however, brought some risks, explained Karina Núñez, Social and Behavior Change Specialist with UNICEF. “Many people stopped getting vaccinated, for different reasons, including mobility restrictions or the spread of rumors regarding COVID-19 vaccination, which also ended up affecting pediatric vaccination and putting Panamanian children at high risk,” Núñez said.
To reverse this situation, the work of leaders like Omayra is “really crucial and essential”, added Núñez, because they build “an intercultural bridge” in the promotion of health and vaccination.
“They draw upon their ancestral knowledge, their experience in the communities, and they can talk with local people and better convey the messages that are so necessary for health operators to save lives,” she said.
Omayra continues to work on promoting confidence in vaccination. With the support of UNICEF, the Panamanian Ministry of Health and Fundación Casa Taller, the women in the Ipetí Emberá community have strengthened their capacity to monitor misinformation regarding vaccination.
UNICEF implements alternative projects to promote vaccination by spreading messages in indigenous languages, organizing workshops, and visiting communities to work hand in hand with them to identify rumors or fake news about vaccination. This initiative is in addition to the work carried out in 2021 by the United Nations Development Program with the Panamanian government to promote early vaccination among teachers, in order to encourage children to return to school and mitigate the effects of school dropout.
Between March and September 2022, Panama’s Ministry of Health administered 135,004 doses of the Pfizer pediatric vaccine as part of the school vaccination program. The total number of vaccines administered for the COVID-19 virus nationwide through September was 8,577,497 doses. This implies that 88.1 per cent of Panamanians were vaccinated with the first dose, 79.2 per cent with the second dose and 43.1 per cent with the third dose, according to the latest figures available. The authorities did not disclose vaccination figures by region, community, or other demographic factors.