Since its first case was confirmed on March 6, Costa Rica has worked to aggressively contain the spread of COVID-19 with a public mindset that has also shaped the Central American nation’s approach to climate change.
As of April 23, there have been 687 confirmed cases with only six deaths, and 196 people have recovered from the virus. For the past several days, the number of active cases has decreased.
Costa Rica’s impressive response to the global pandemic in many ways parallels the leadership it has displayed in combating climate change. For a country with a population of just over 5 million, Costa Rica has consistently punched above its weight when it comes to tackling these two crises.
Costa Rica Delivers on COVID-19
With the lowest death rate in Latin America, Costa Rica has so far managed to slow the spread of COVID-19, while much of the region is reeling from the effects of the virus. The country’s universal healthcare system has been its backbone throughout the pandemic.
Under the leadership of President Carlos Alvarado, Health Minister Daniel Salas and President of the Social Security Fund Roman Macaya, Costa Rica moved quickly to flatten the curve. It declared a state of emergency on March 16, 10 days after the first case, was confirmed and strictly limited international travel, shut down its schools and universities, closed beaches and national parks, and imposed driving restrictions.
But it is important to note that while the numbers are encouraging, Costa Rica lacks the capacity to conduct widespread testing. As of April 23, Costa Rica had conducted a total of 12,072 tests, whereas New Zealand, a nation with a comparable population, has conducted over 89,000 tests.
The economic toll of the shutdown has been devastating for the country with 250,000 people now reporting zero income and the World Bank projecting a negative 3.3 percent GDP growth rate for 2020. The impact has been especially hard, since 8.8 percent of the country’s total employment comes directly from tourism. The government has moved to provide a small subsidy to compensate families adversely affected by COVID-19.
The University of Costa Rica will be testing three plasma-based immunotherapy treatments. The laboratory is the only one in Latin America doing this kind of work. The university has also made available a prototype for a low-cost, emergency respirator designed by a group of engineers, physicists and therapists. Costa Rica also announced that it will be developing its own tests through The National Center of Biotechnology Innovations.
Alvarado and Salas have also shown leadership beyond the nation’s borders, submitting a proposal to the World Health Organization (WHO) for a repository of information on diagnostic tests, devices, medications and vaccines.
A Regional Leader in Climate Governance
Costa Rica’s ability to contain the COVID-19 pandemic should come as no surprise for a country that has a strong record on fighting the climate crisis. In both cases, Costa Rica has put a priority on robust public policy.
Costa Rica already generates over 98 percent of its electricity from renewable resources, coming primarily from hydropower (67.5 percent), wind (17 percent) and geothermal sources (13.5 percent). Roughly 23 percent of the country’s land area is set aside for conservation, and the nation has established a model Payment for Environmental Services Program to protect its forest cover.
Costa Rica set forth a path to carbon neutrality by 2050 in its National Decarbonization Plan. The plan focuses on 10 areas, with the most critical being the transportation sector, which is responsible for 54 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.
“Decarbonization is the great challenge of our generation and Costa Rica must be among the first countries to achieve it, if not the first,” said Alvarado when presenting the plan in February 2019.
Just as Costa Rica has stepped up on the international stage with its proposal to the WHO, it has also shown leadership in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Costa Rica’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, which aims for a 25 percent reduction in emissions from its 2012 levels by 2030, was one of only a handful rated compatible with a 2°C warming world by Climate Action Tracker.
Costa Rica also co-organized last year’s UN climate negotiations with Chile, hosting the pre-conference and taking an active role in the climate talks. Along with 31 other nations, it released the San Jose Principles that seek to protect the integrity of carbon markets as nations such as Brazil and Australia work to undermine them.
Although it is a country with limited resources and GDP of just over $60 billion, Costa Rica has moved swiftly to address the crises of climate change and COVID-19. The government has risen to the challenge, showing initiative on the national and global stage, while many other nations refuse to take the aggressive steps needed.