A cultural body for the Guna Yala people in Panama voted Monday to ban the wearing of face masks used to combat COVID-19, 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 people, the second-largest of seven indigenous groups in Panama, live mainly on the Caribbean coast.
Panama's government made it clear that the cultural assembly does not have the power to decide public health matters and that such a move would be up to the Indigenous territory's official law-making congress.
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 that the communities two congresses might have to consult with each other in November on the issue.
Palacio, a member of the Ngabe Bugle group, Panama's largest indigenous community, said that up to now, Indigenous people had been observing lockdown and social distancing measures.
Palacio, who was himself infected with COVID-19, said that vote may have been in part motivated by anger in indigenous communities that authorities have ignored traditional, plant-based treatments for COVID-19.
In general, the country's indigenous groups have been hit hard by the COVID-19.
Wagayoguna Diaz, the health director for the Guna Yala territory, said the region has seen 967 COVID-19 cases and 36 deaths so far. Diaz said 35 new cases were reported in the territory Monday.
Panama has recorded 129,000 COVID-19 infected cases and 2,600 deaths.