Pura Vida in the Time of COVID

“So how is Costa Rica handling COVID?” you ask. Good on you for asking. Same as every other country: it’s a mixed bag and ever changing. Hang with me, this post involves statistics. No getting around it.

Just over 5 million people live here. There have been 406,814 infections and 5,030 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began. These numbers include tourists who became infected here and could not board a plane home until after their recovery and a two-week quarantine. There are currently 829 people hospitalized, 367 in intensive care. Infections are decreasing, with 1,009 new infections reported on average each day. That’s about a third of the peak on May 15 when the country ran out of ICU beds.

As you might expect, the majority of the cases have been in the two most populated cities: Liberia and San Jose. Up here in the mountains, they were not overwhelmed, but you do meet folks who either had it or know someone who did. Our neighbor Margaret came here in 1982 and is now in her mid-eighties. She had us over for a vicious game of Scrabble (a local passion here) soon after we arrived. Her brother was a prominent artist and conservationist in town. He passed away from the virus last year. Margaret cared for him in his illness and also contracted it but her symptoms were not severe. The manager of our property and his wife had it, but again, not severe cases.

Beyond the toll of the disease, the town was devastated by the shutdown. Tourism is the number one industry of the country and of this region. As a result of the shutdowns, the unemployment rate here is over 20%. Costa Rican citizens received one stimulus payment from the government of a few hundred dollars but that has been it. Private charities and food programs are stretched to the limit. We were glad to contribute to a local program that provides free breakfasts in the community and they were over-the-top thankful for the small gift. And while this can quickly rebound as things begin to re-open, many businesses will never return. I would estimate that about a quarter of the storefront businesses here are shuttered. Perhaps some have yet to reopen, but most look like they have been abandoned.

Getting to Costa Rica does not require a negative COVID test, as going back to the US does. You simply have to purchase health insurance that covers $50,000 for medical expenses and $2,000 for COVID quarantine. This basically becomes your health insurance because it covers everything else as well. Ours is around $80 a month for a year of coverage for both of us. Health care here is cheap and high quality. As of August 1, the insurance requirement is waived for vaccinated passengers with a card documenting their dosages. But I would think you would still want to purchase some kind of international coverage unless you are a dice-roller.

Mask wearing is required inside every public institution and private business. They used to take temperatures and had disinfectant pads for the bottom of shoes, but most of that has gone away. What remains are hand-washing stations in front of almost every business.

This struck me as odd at first since we know this virus is essentially airborne and does not spread easily on surfaces, but sure, keeping your hands clean is a fundamental public health measure in any disease crisis. And my hands have never been cleaner.

What’s different here is that the people are determined to fight this as a community. They are grateful for their national healthcare system and are invested in the welfare of the whole, not just the individual. They realize that their individual welfare is dependent upon everybody doing their part. They don’t resist mask wearing. There are no anti-vaxxers here, only people who have not had access to it yet. This week, I saw a line of around 60 people at a shopping center waiting patiently for a chance to get jabbed. They understand the science and the medicine. Politics never enters the picture. Why would it? That would be insanity.

At this point, around 30% of the citizens here are fully vaccinated. That number goes up if you count all those who have had one dose. The US just donated a half-million doses that are being administered this week, which should bring the number up to 40%. But they will need more vaccine after that. The Delta variant has arrived in the past two weeks. If you guys in the US aren’t going to use yours, they will take it down here.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that they started reopening just before we arrived. Schools will have in-person components for the first time in nearly two years, partially thanks to a national teacher’s strike just before the pandemic. Churches just started meeting in person, masked of course. Restaurants and some tourism sights have reopened but at reduced capacity. If folks seem a little stand-offish, it’s not necessarily because we’re new; they too are figuring out how to be in public again after a long time alone.

As always, the biggest danger lies in the unvaccinated and belligerent American tourists exercising their goddamn given rights and terrorizing the masked Costa Rican employees. Monteverde doesn’t get many of them, but they are numerous at the Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville bars at the beach. Makes me want to crawl in a hole and die. Can’t blame the Canadians. They still can’t leave their country. Well, they can, but they won’t get back in.

Of course I worry for this country when I see the Delta variant numbers spreading and know that there is a delayed effect that hits here long after it hits the States. All that being said, we’ll take our chances in this rural cloud forest filled with science-minded nature lovers, where you can be outside all year long, and where everybody is on the same page regarding public health measures. It is like a breath of fresh, mountain rainforest air.

Pura vida.

Published by Tom Cox

Tom & Jean, a couple of contemplative ex-pats from Pittsburgh, shed all their earthly belongings and move to Costa Rica. What could possibly go wrong?

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