By Horace Holloman
Kwaneya Black had a tough decision to make. Travel back home to friends and family in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, or continue her work with Floating Doctors and help people in remote communities in Panama receive necessary medical supplies and medicine.
In March, Black said all of the doctors and volunteers with Floating Doctors left to go back to their home countries as Panama imposed an ordinance that no one would be able to fly into or out of the country during the outbreak.
Black said she “didn’t consider” leaving Panama, a place she has a deep connection to.
“I had an hour to make the decision in order to catch the next few flights leaving the country,” said Black, who earned a B.A. in anthropology from Georgia State in 2016. “But I feel fulfilled to be able to do this work and to be on the front lines of something so important. My role feels like I have more lives on the line.”
Floating Doctors is a nonprofit organization that helps people in coastal communities across the world access healthcare services. In 2018, Floating Doctors reports that it cared for 13,500 patients. Black is based in in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, a chain of islands where her great-grandmother was born.
As an operations manager, Black said she is responsible for supervising fellowship positions at Floating Doctors. However, without staff doctors or volunteers, Black said it’s imperative those who are left try to get medical supplies to patients with chronic conditions.
“It feels like what I’m doing is more important now than when I first started,” Black said. “With the absence of doctors, we’re having to make more decisions in order to still make an impact and care for these communities.”
Black said staff members take extra precaution when dropping off medicine and other supplies. Everyone is required to wear a mask and sanitize frequently.
“We would hate to be responsible for bringing the disease to some of these communities that are already vulnerable,” she said.
Black’s great grandmother, Lucille Dolores Benilda Schwartz Meade, helped raise her until the age of 16. That makes the work in Bocas Del Toro feel personal.
“I get to explore my identity on the very soil of my own ancestors. I can't even describe what that means to me,” said Black. “I feel honored at the opportunity I have in this country. This is where my great grandmother is from. The work I do here, I can have an impact on the access to healthcare. I know she’d be proud of me.”
Black said her grandmother, Nora Monica Patricia Meade, was diagnosed with diabetes and struggled to receive quality healthcare because of her socioeconomic status in the United States.
Black said that helped her understand the importance of access to healthy food and healthcare.
Black said she initially wanted to be a pediatrician but fell in love with medical anthropology at Georgia State. Black had her first international experience as an undergraduate when she traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a month, working with local health agencies and education institutions.
“After leaving Rio de Janeiro, I realized that minorities, people who are in poverty and people with limited physical capabilities are suffering across the board,” Black said. “There’s just not enough light being shed on the fact that these minority groups are not receiving the same amount of care as everyone else is. Here [in Bocas Del Toro] we’re giving everyone basic healthcare.”
Despite the odds, Black said she is determined to continue her work in Panama.
“It’s challenging work that we do, but it’s very important,” Black said. “I think my grandmother would think I’m crazy for coming back here, but … I think she’d be really proud of what I’m doing. I’m proud of it.”
Photo courtesy of Kwaneya Black.