Central American exceptionalism: Costa Rica faces la pandemia

The tiny country’s success at tackling coronavirus

Mark Gullick

When Columbus discovered a country in 1502, which he believed to be saturated with precious metals, he named it “the rich coast” or, in Spanish, Costa Rica. Bordering Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, the country occupies 0.2 per cent of the world’s land mass, but has 5 per cent of its animal species. It has had no standing army since 1949 after its bloody civil war, and its nickname, “the Switzerland of Central America”, is a reference to its—for the region—strong economy.

Despite its robust economy, Costa Rica is about to suffer a post-viral slump, with the central bank forecasting a 3.6 per cent downturn in the coming year for a country reliant on tourism. Yet the first world could learn much from the manner in which this third-world nation has handled the ravages of Covid-19.

It certainly feels as though the country is in good hands. While it has been noted that the WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lacks a medical degree, the Costa Rican Minister of Health, Daniel Salas, has a degree in medicine, another in public health, and a professional background in epidemiology.

The government’s response to la pandemia has been exemplary, preparing the country before the first recorded case. Businesses were issued with contact-tracing protocols and strict disinfectant procedures, and hand-sanitiser was available at the entrance to every store long before friends in Europe told me they had seen this measure in place. Costa Rica is famous for its beaches, but normally crowded beaches were immediately closed and placed under police watch.

Costa Rica has a population of a little over five million and, at the time of writing, has had 2,515 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 12 fatalities. To return to Costa Rica’s nickname and project those figures onto Switzerland’s 8.6 million population, the European country should have had 4,326 cases and 21 fatalities. In fact, Switzerland has recorded 31,376 cases and suffered 1,682 deaths. Of course, there are differences between the two countries, but not sufficient to explain this huge swing.

Why might comparisons be misleading? The Costa Rican government has freely admitted that it cannot afford the testing regimes adopted by richer countries, and so its statistics may be “light”. A hot climate is also thought to retard the spread of Covid-19. Signor Salas has further emphasised that, with the rainy season now upon us, Costa Rica’s seasonal increase in respiratory illness may lead to a steepening of the infection curve, as is the case. At present, however, the nation has the lowest infection rate in the Americas, with more Costa Ricans dying from coronavirus and its complications in America than at home.

Government policy has also been subtly effective in ways not immediately apparent. Banning unnecessary car journeys between 5pm and 5am seemed unlikely to have an effect on viral transmission. Costa Rica, however, is notorious for traffic accidents, and the driving here may be charitably described as maverick. The country regularly appears in the global top five for fatal car crashes per capita. By preventing night-time driving it is very likely that demand for the mere 140 intensive-care beds nationwide would also be cut.

The government itself, led by President Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the centre-left Citizens’ Action Party, has been forthright and realistic from the beginning of the outbreak, and has been left alone by the media and political opponents to do its job without critical interference. Almost.

Politicisation of Covid-19 appears to be a separate virus affecting Europe and the USA and one which Costa Rica seems to regard as a pointless distraction, but the waters are not completely calm. Dragos Dolanescu is a Romanian-born naturalised politician who leads the small Social Christian Republican Party, and he has caused a minor equatorial tea-cup storm by criticising the government for kow-towing to Beijing.

Costa Rica, like many developing countries, has been the beneficiary of Chinese investment. Football is a religion here, with players going back into training even before the churches were re-opened, and the CCP gifted Costa Rica a $105 million national stadium in the capital San José in 2011.

Dolanescu stated that it was “unfortunate” that Chinese Ambassador Tang Heng was pressurising Costa Rica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs over his comments, having previously stressed his opinion that Covid-19 began in Wuhan. Dolanescu adds that China’s failure to recognise Taiwan is “blinding itself to the reality of the world”.

For the most part the national response has been indicative of the national character, a smiling optimism. No matter how spurious such data may be, Costa Rica often appears at the top of the “World Happiness League”. The self-styled “Ticos” and “Ticas” will work hard to revive their priceless tourist industry. As restaurants re-open and beaches come back to life, although border control remains firm, the country will be desperate to attract visitors once more to sample the simple and uncluttered life summed up in the national catchphrase; “pura vida!”.

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