Health and Healthcare Systems

This Latin American country is keeping COVID-19 firmly under control. How?

People wait at a distribution point for fruits and vegetables donated by domestic producers unable to export due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in San Jose, Costa Rica April 13, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate - RC2Z3G9YWP8O

Costa Rica was host to the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Latin America. Image: REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

Douglas Broom
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Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica, where Latin America’s first COVID-19 case was reported, is one of the most successful nations in the fight against the coronavirus.
  • Its infection and death rates are lower than that of New Zealand.
  • Experts say its success was down to a swift response.
  • Now lockdown measures are being gradually lifted.
  • But the country’s borders remain sealed until at least 15 May.

The first confirmed case of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Latin America was diagnosed in Costa Rica, a nation of 5 million people that has just over one doctor per thousand people.

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But what might have been a recipe for a health disaster has turned into a relative success story of the pandemic. By 6 May, Costa Rica had reported 755 cases and six deaths.

It’s a record on a par with that of New Zealand, widely regarded as a paradigm for effectively managing the virus. New Zealand has a similar-sized population and had reported 1,488 cases and 21 deaths by 6 May.

The number of people recovering from coronavirus in Costa Rica has recently outpaced the number of new cases. By 4 May, the total number of people who had recovered was greater than the number of active cases.

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This is how coronavirus has progressed in Costa Rica. Image: Tico Times

Acting quickly

So how has Costa Rica been so successful in containing the virus? Costa Rican tech entrepreneur José Cayasso, whose business is based in New York, has no doubt about the reason for his nation’s resilience.

“The key here is how quickly the government responded and how seriously they took the situation from the get-go,” he says in a YouTube video. “Few countries, even success stories like South Korea, have been as successful as Costa Rica in slowing the curve.”


Cayasso, who left his office in the US to sit out the pandemic in his home country, says: “Seeing how the situation evolved in the first few weeks, seeing how both of these governments responded, I would not choose anywhere else in the world to be other than Costa Rica.”

“We’ve had a very controlled transmission,” the country’s health minister, Daniel Salas, told The Tico Times in April. “That’s in large part to the actions taken at the appropriate moment, but also due to the very favourable response from a population that understands the challenge we’re facing.”

Costa Rica banned mass gatherings on 9 March and, on 16 March, declared a state of emergency, under which people were told to work from home, and schools and all non-essential businesses were closed. The country’s borders were subsequently shut on 19 March.

Unlike some other countries in Latin America, Costa Rica has universal healthcare, on which it spends a higher proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average. The OECD says “there is much to praise” about a system that delivers higher life expectancy than many other OECD nations.

Easing up

Costa Rica has carried out almost 14,000 coronavirus tests. With the number of new cases falling, the government decided to partially lift the lockdown.

From 1 May, theatres, gyms and exercise centres have been allowed to reopen, but customers must keep two metres apart at all times. Sports venues are only allowed to use a quarter of their seating capacity.

Beauticians and hairdressers are also allowed to resume trading but must only have half as many customers as their salons can accommodate. Even auto workshops are limited in the number of cars they can service, at their capacity.

Reuters reported President Carlos Alvarado as saying: “We have had relative and fragile success, but we cannot let our guard down.”

The borders will remain closed until at least 15 May and restrictions on driving, intended to prevent people from spreading the virus, remain in force. Driving at night is banned and drivers may only drive on certain days if their licence plate ends in a particular number.

Border closures are a blow to the nation’s normally thriving tourism industry, which contributes $1.7 billion to the economy. Overall, the lockdown is forecast to reduce the nation’s GDP by almost 4% this year.

Still, Costa Rica’s success holding the virus at bay is in contrast to neighbouring Panama, which has a smaller population but, by 6 May, had reported 7,523 cases and 210 deaths. On the same day, the region’s largest country, Mexico, with close to 129 million people, had reported 26,025 cases and 2,507 deaths.

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