The COVID-AM blog is a partnership between the UMI 3157 iGLOBES and the Institut des Amériques, coordinated by François-Michel Le Tourneau, Deputy Director and Marion Magnan, researcher at the Institute. About the blog.

costa rica, a good student in the pandemic?

April 20, 2020

by Elisabeth Cunin, Anthropologist and Senior Researcher at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development), currently hosted by the Universidad de Costa Rica


In Costa Rica, the Ministry of Health's daily press conferences show a strong image of the management of the Covid-19 crisis: solemn tone, official flags, old portraits of past health administrators, simultaneous translation for the hearing-impaired, large bottle of gel in the middle of the microphones. 


Print screen of the Minister of Health's daily press conference April 15, 2020
Print screen of the Minister of Health's daily press conference April 15, 2020

This daily briefing has transformed the Minister of Health, Daniel Salas, into a national hero.


The numbers are revealing. Though Costa Rica has its first Covid-19 case in Central America (March 6, 2020), it is also the country that has the least deaths in the region (5 people as of April 19, 2020). The number of contaminated people is regularly increasing (660 confirmed cases for a population of 5 million) and substantially surpasses, in percentage, those of its neighbors, except for Panama. But the mortality rate (0.76%) is the smallest in Latin America (followed by Chili with 1.32% and Uruguay with 1.93%) and even one of the lowest worldwide (behind Singapour at 0.17%, but in front of Taiwan at 1.43%, or South Korea at 2.19% according to John Hopkins University numbers). The role of the government and the public policies that were put in place since the 1940s are probably account for these good results. The healthcare system is one of the best in latin America and access to care is universal. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the universities, especially Universidad de Costa Rica, have been producing masks, ventilators, or have been looking for an anti-virus (notably from the antibodies of people who have recovered).


While there had been few declared cases, the government took strong measures right at the beginning of the month of March, well before the United States, Mexico and France: telecommuting for public agencies on March 9 and closure of public spaces on March 10 (despite the country only have 9 identified cases), closings of the first schools on March 12 and progressive cancellations of public events, closure of movie theaters, theaters, bars, night clubs, national parks, beaches. On March 16, the public health state of emergency is proclaimed, and with it all schools and national borders are closed. A dedicated phone line is put in place and procedures to follow in case of symptoms is widely broadcasted; all instructions and measures taken by the government are available on-line on the Ministry of Health's website of which specific directives on gender violence, homeless people, indigenous and afrodescendent populations.

Pan-American highway between San José and Cartago (local beltway), April 6, 2020
Pan-American highway between San José and Cartago (local beltway), April 6, 2020

Fearing a spread of the virus throughout the country (it is for now largely concentrated in the central valley, around the cities of San José, Alajuela, Heredia and Cartago, which hold over 60% of the population), the government reinforced these measures during Holy Week: non-essential businesses closed, malls forbidden, traffic nearly completely stopped. In San José, where road traffic is usually maddening (Costa Rica is 3rd in number of cars per resident in Latin America), the Pan-American highway was deserted for 5 days, giving cyclists and walkers an unprecedented leisure space. The government's control of the situation (or the impression of control it gives) is unquestionable, going so far as to mention the purchase of 3000 body bags (bolsas para cadáveres) while specifying that the protocol calls for two per person...everything is planned before the storm, even if everybody hopes it does not come, because despite its excellent healthcare system, Costa Rica only has 143 beds in ICUs.


However, the restrictions are limited: no strict quarantine, road traffic modulated according to time and day, businesses limited to 50% of their holding capacity. Many restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, small supermarkets, remain open for "home delivery" or "drive-throughs". Because of the confinement ("Quédate en casa"), bicycle or motocycle delivery people, along with the minister of health, are essential during the crisis. As in other places, the economy is likely to be hit hard, especially tourism, but this slower production helps preserve some activity. At the same time, the government has put in place a number of measures to assist with telecommuting and to help small businesses: creation of unemployment benefits (Bono Proteger) for workers who've lost their job or have to work part-time, moratorium on the payment of some taxes, specific contributions to the tourisme sector, etc.


This political message, which wants to portray reassurance, competence and prevention, is leaning on another central element of Costarican society: trust in its government and its national model, as sais by the minister of health “La responsabilidad de cuidarnos es de todos y todas: gobierno, empresas y ciudadanía” ("Healthcare is everybody's responsability: government, businesses and citizens"), Daniel Salas, press conference, April 14, 2020.

Poster on window of the restaurant Faqra, barrio Escalante, April 15, 2020.
Poster on window of the restaurant Faqra, barrio Escalante, April 15, 2020.

So, even if the measures that were put in place are partly coercive (and directly santionned with fines), they depend on individual and civic responsability. If not on national pride. The government of Costa Rica is proud of following to the letter the WHO's directives and Costaricans the government's recommendations. This feeling of being the "good student" in Central America summarizes a real democratic commitment that sometimes also turns nationalistic, that carries a certain right-minded, homogenous group mind-set that doesn't tolerate unconventional behavior, other Central American countries' but also that of its citizens who are not respectful of common rules.


In this respect, the comments that pepper the Ministry of Health's Facebook page are remarquable: not only do they regularly congratulate the government for its handle on the situation (“Vamos Sr. Ministro usted está haciendo lo correcto”[1], “Gracias Excelente Ministro de Salud Dr Daniel Salas. Que Dios Lo Proteja Llene de Mucha Fortaleza Lo Siga Guiando e Iluminando Siempre Bendiciones”[2]), and the Costarican society as well for its good behavior (“Soy orgullosa de mi patria”[3], “Esperemos Buenos comportamientos de los Costarricenses“[4]), but they violently revile any action considered uncivil (“deje de malinformar!”[5], “si quieres jalar jalese, nadie lo detiene, pero no vuelva nunca mas por favor”[6]).


Several comments mention the Nicaraguans' situation in Costa Rica (“Hagan algo con ese montón de nicaragüenses que querían salir el día de hoy en 2 buses repletos para Nicaragua… Sanciones fuertes!”[7]). As is often the case, the "hidden face" of the Costarican democracy is seen in its relationship with his Nicaraguan neighbor, notably because of the presence of migrants from that country who represent 10% of the population and a big part of the workforce. Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's president's inaction to the pandemic has provoked worried comments, if not hostile, and illegal attempts to cross the border between the two countries is fueling the controversy. So, an airbase was installed to control the border, close to the town of Los Chiles. Asylum of Nicaraguan refugees escaping from the Ortega regime has been suspended, while current refugees already in Costa Rica (50 000 according to official numbers, up to 100 000 according to NGOs) are living in particularly precarious conditions. To recent anti-migrant protests could be added the implicit association of Nicaraguans with Covid-19, as was seen of the young pregnant Nicaraguan woman who entered illegally into Costa Rica and was suspected (wrongly) of having the coronavirus. Often a good student on the world stage (sustainability, lack of armed forces, human rights advocacy and now Covid-19 management), Costa Rica can also be provincial, moralistic and exclusive!

[1] Continue Mister Minister of Health, excellent work!

[2] Thank you Mister Minister of Health Daviel Salas. May God protect you, give you strength, guide and illuminate you. God bless you.

[3] I'm proud of my country!

[4] We expect exemplary behavior from Costaricans.

[5] Stop the disinformation!

[6] If you want to leave, go, nobody is holding you back, but please don't ever come back.

[7] Two overflowing buses of Nicaraguans today! Something has to be done! Strong sanctions!


Elisabeth Cunin is a Senior Researcher at IRD, Researcher with the reserch center on migrations and society (URMIS) and currently hosted at the Centro de Investigación en Identidad y Cultura Latinoamericanas (CIICLA), Universidad de Costa Rica. She has been the Southeast delegate of the Institut des Amériques