My gym is open. The barber shop is open — I can go get my hair cut and beard trimmed. I can head over to San José Saturday morning and go to the weekend markets, or to one of the dozen or so national parks that are open. I can go later today for lunch at my favorite café. It seems that, while there are still some isolated shortages, I can pretty easily buy toilet paper, disinfectant, or hand sanitizer.
I remember back in March many people were saying that cases and deaths would explode in Costa Rica. I know because I was one of those people. But they didn’t. What happened?
Why aren’t ICU wards overflowing like what happened in other places such as Spain, Italy, or New York? Why isn’t there a forced stay-at-home order in Costa Rica? How is Costa Rica doing so well?
Clear Action from the Start
Active Cases in Costa Rica, May 22, 2020
From the beginning, it’s clear that Costa Rica did not downplay the pandemic, compared to many other countries. Most communication from the government was on message: that this is a serious health crisis, that it is definitely coming to Costa Rica, and that we need to make a huge effort to contain and mitigate so that we don’t overwhelm the health care system and cause many more deaths as a result.
Thorough contact tracing was implemented from Day 1. No significant community transmission has been found in the country so far. One project is out there testing for COVID-19 in rural areas — so far, all those samples have tested negative. Another one is sampling high risk zones such as urban slums and have detected clusters that are being managed.
Costa Rica closed the borders on March 17 except to citizens and residents, and required anyone entering to country to go into mandatory home quarantine for 14 days. The penalties for violating quarantine are severe. If anyone develops symptoms or were identified as being in close contact with someone who was confirmed to have the virus, they can get tested. Private tests are available on-demand as well.
Part of a physical rehab facility was converted into the specialized COVID Hospital (CEACO) which opened in late March and currently has a few of the patients. This project was in the works since January. It can handle up to 88 patients at a time with minor or moderate complications requiring hospitalization, freeing up other hospitals and providing additional precautions to prevent spread.
Of all the measures that were taken, it seems to me like the one with the most impact is the removal of crowds mass attendance events – festivals, concerts, sporting events. While I foresee other activities coming back soon as testing, tracing and isolation ramps up, I don’t see big crowded events happening for a long time to come.
Why So Few Deaths? (Why Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth?)
With a total of 10 deaths recorded, at a rate of approximately 1% of detected cases, so far the death rate in Costa Rica has been low. Why is that? Could it be the weather? Early detection, testing and contact tracing? Costa Rica’s use of hydroxychloroquine in patients during the early stages of infection? Could it be Vitamin D from the sun helping our immune systems? There’s no straight answer but we are hoping the trend continues.
Reports from people who have been confirmed with COVID-19 in Costa Rica show that there has been a lot of follow through by the authorities. Those who tested positive weren’t left to their devices. The population is also a bit younger than other countries with a median age is 33.5 years (compare to Spain’s 44.9 or Italy’s 45.4).
Civil Liberties Mostly Retained?
Costa Rica has not had to resort to the especially harsh measures that are being seen in Spain, Italy or the USA, or neighboring countries such as Panama and El Salvador. The restaurants and cafés have remained open, albeit at reduced hours and capacity. Most workplaces such as call centers have remained open, while work from home has been encouraged. Even barber shops and beauty salons, places were there is close physical contact, have remained open and are now allowed to be open 7 days a week. Like I mentioned before. My gym is open — back in March and April, I wouldn’t have predicted that.
The government did not impose a lockdown because there is no constitutional basis to do so, due to the right of free movement. Instead, they used the power they had over road laws to regulate some movement. Free movement does not mean free movement in your car. People still get around by bus or taxi, walking, cycling, at any hour of the day or night — and can drive their car in emergencies.
The Bad News: The Economy
The Costa Rican economy, like many others around the world, is decimated. Preliminary estimates show hundreds of thousands of people having lost their jobs. Many more have been furloughed, or have seen their hours and pay reduced. While restaurants and other businesses are allowed to open, the restriction on hours and capacity makes them unprofitable, and takeout and delivery isn’t picking up the slack enough — so many have closed, some for good.
Tourism is currently at zero — they’re calling it Zero Season. In a normal year, tourism represents 8% of GDP and 300,000 jobs. Any opening of the borders to foreign tourists risks importing cases and causing an outbreak, which means closing the borders again — a worst-case scenario for economic disruption.
Case in point: most of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 this month have been imported. They were discovered either by testing at the airport or the border, or developing symptoms while in home quarantine.
The government has been working to get help out to people in need, such as the Bono Proteger (a stipend of around $220/month for those who have lost their jobs), and easier access to accumulated pensions. Public and private banks are offering deferrals on mortgages, car loans, personal loans and credit card payments. There are proposed bills for rent forbearance but nothing concrete has passed the legislature as of this writing. The president even expressed support for the cannabis cultivation bill to help reactivate the economy.
The Good News: Costa Rica’s Image
The way Costa Rica has handled the pandemic is making international news. If the country can avert a health disaster, it may end up being a very attractive destination for tourists and prospective residents who want to live and retire in a country that is equipped to manage a crisis.
The biggest challenge will be to mitigate the economic disaster that is currently underway and is about to get worse.
For key information related to Costa Rica during this time, be sure to read our COVID-19 in Costa Rica which is updated regularly.