The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing by the day, meaning some of the information in this article might be out of date. For our most recent coronavirus coverage, click here.
Imagine: you’ve spent a fortnight gurning to rib-shaking basslines. You’ve spent hazy afternoons listening to the wisdom of indigenous elders. And you’ve lazed on the sand with a bunch of globe-trotting hippies on Playa Chiquita, one of Central America’s most beautiful beaches.
But as you reach the end of your music festival, you realise something’s not quite right. You’re actually stuck here – or more accurately, you’re trapped by local police and their fear of coronavirus.
This is currently the situation for 300 or so punters at Tribal Gathering Festival in Colón, Panama.
On Friday, two days before the dance music festival came to a close, Health Minister Rosario Turner declared a state of emergency, ordering festival punters to remain on site until 23rd March. The order, which came after the country was hit by its first death from COVID-19 last Tuesday, was issued to help stagger the number of infections, which has currently reached a total of 109 cases.
Border police have now surrounded the festival, entrapping the people that hadn’t quite managed to get away in time and leaving them to work out the distribution of whatever rations were left.
Artist manager Luu Carretero Sierra said locals from Colón have chosen to voluntarily stay on site to help with security and deal with the Ministry of Health, the army, transportation and logistics. “The Panamanian government is not providing any assistance,” she told VICE. “They’ve just left us here to linger. But we’ve experienced massive solidarity from the locals at this crazy time. We’re hoping the food truck will last over a week.”
The situation is reminiscent of the Bahamian locals who dived in to help disgruntled punters ripped off by the disastrous Fyre Festival – except that event didn’t happen, and they had to deal with corrupt organisers, not a pandemic.
But Sierra said medical supplies on site might now be an issue. This is because the Red Cross – who were contracted by the festival organisers to provide First Aid and care for the general wellbeing of punters during the event – have now left the site.
Sierra, who is a Spanish national, said the British government has refused to help get her back because she is not a UK national. Meanwhile, the Spanish embassy in Panama has not responded to her frequent calls for help. Other embassies, she said, such as those from Hungary and Switzerland, have been taking action to get people home.
A spokesperson from the Spanish Embassy told VICE: "We are in contact with all Spanish citizens whose data has been provided to us by the event organisers. All possible steps are being taken by the Embassy, in some cases via relatives in Spain, and with corresponding Panamanian authorities. Spanish nationals who have not been accounted for can contact us on the emergency numbers by calling (507) 6430 0642 or (507) 6654 7641. We hope to resolve the situation over the coming days. We are working on it."
In response to request for information about people stranded in Panama, a spokesperson for the British Foreign Office said: “We recognise that any British people currently overseas may be nervous about the impact of coronavirus on their travel and their health.
“We are in close contact with travel providers and our international partners to provide support to those British people affected by ongoing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Over the last few days, several people were separated from their friends when they tried to leave the festival in different shuttles. Some vehicles were turned back by police to the remote site, while others got out.
Festival organisers said tests for COVID-19 were carried out on the site by Panama’s Ministry of Health and that the number of cases of infection are zero so far. But according to organisers, the main concern had risen from a “belly bug” that caused a fever amongst some of the punters.
One punter who did not want to be named told VICE: “The Panamanian authorities are disorganised so the situation keeps changing every hour. We just don’t know. People who tried to leave were stopped, made to wait long hours and then sent back to site. So I don’t know if I want to go through the hassle of nonsensical military procedures. At times, it’s like a bad joke of a comedown.”
Others were luckier. By the time the curfew was announced on Friday, Nanoplex artist Chris Williams had managed to get away. “I escaped on a local chicken bus with a bunch of hippies to avoid roadblocks looking for foreigners at the festival just before the curfew kicked in,” the techno DJ told VICE.
British psytrance musician Celli Earthling said he escaped just in time, too. “As soon as I heard they may quarantine the whole festival, I booked myself on the next shuttle and slipped out just in time to catch the last flight to Madrid.”
There are currently some 80 UK nationals left on site, though numbers are getting smaller. Graham Brown aka DJ Sutekh is one of them. “The government’s been useless,” he said. “But it’s only because of the crew and community spirit we’ve managed to get through it so far. It’s like this festival is never going to come to an end, but all I want to do right now is get home to my wife.”
On the plus side: a tiny beach bar remains open; a small sound-system is still playing music; there are daily workshops, holistic therapies, a nightly cinema, and food you can earn by volunteering if you’ve run out of cash. More food was delivered Tuesday, thanks to a local supplier who stepped up to help when no one else could with the large quantities required.
“We’re lucky. We’ve got food, clean water, tents, toilets, internet. That’s more than what locals in the area have all year round,” said crew member Lizy Bending.
But it comes at a price. In the absence of state help, the festival’s organiser Tim Raper took out a $160,000 loan to cover costs of running the site during lockdown. “There’s lots of Brits here helping run the festival. And they generally have a no-fear cheeky attitude to trouble and strife. We didn’t ask for this but it’s been a pretty interesting social experience. Takes a village to run a village though, right?”
Panama’s Ministry of Health has been contacted for a response.
UPDATE 20/3/20: The piece has been updated to include a statement from the Spanish embassy and to clarify that border police – not military – have closed off the site.