Monday 29 May 2023

Costa Rica begins second pandemic year with 3 urgent tasks: vaccinate, reactivate economy and recover education

2021 brings more hope, analysts say, but they warn that the pandemic forces the country not to postpone a solution to the long list of old problems, revealed by the health crisis

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QCOSTARICA – The pandemic is not over. Not yet. We still have some time to go before getting there. Perhaps that is the most important thing to keep in mind at the beginning of the second pandemic year.

Last September, the Government launched the ‘Costa Rica trabaja y se cuida’ (Costa Rica works and takes care) strategy to reactivate the economy without neglecting health care from the effects of the pandemic. In the image, a typical afternoon in downtown San Jose. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

Although the number of new daily confirmed cases keeps falling, as the number of deaths falls and hospital beds of patients with Covid-19 are vacated, this, the pandemic, continues.

However, unlike a year ago, the road today appears much clearer and, according to Health Minister Dr. Daniel Salas, with more hope for better times.

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Most important of all: there is a vaccine.

Costa Rica has already applied 193,273 doses against covid-19, completed the first risk group and now working through the second, through a mega vaccination campaign, the largest in the country’s history, that will cost us all  US$77.4 million dollars for the purchase of 7.4 million doses, to cover 3.7 million people.

These images were very frequent in the middle of 2020. The CCSS managed to reorganize its services. Transformed the Cenare into an exclusive center to care for patients with covid-19, and used the new east tower of the Calderón Guardia Hospital to care for those patients. In the photo, one of the Intensive Care Units (ICU) of Hospital México, dedicated to covid cases. Photo: Courtesy Hospital México

Besides taking pressure off the health services of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS), it will also take pressure off the entire country.

There will no longer be excuses to delay response to numerous complex socio-economic problems, with years on the waiting list for a definitive solution, analysts say.

Accelerating the step of vaccination becomes one of the three most urgent tasks to complete in the coming months, and the success directly affects economic reactivation, the second great mission.

The relationship between one and another is direct.

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The third great challenge is recovering the historical lag of a practically lost year for 1.2 million students throughout the country.

“We are very clear that in the midst of this pandemic a series of shortcomings were detected, but also opportunities for improvement. Of course, at this time the country is experiencing a delicate economic situation.

“We have been doing analysis to take advantage of the opportunities to make Costa Rica go further. Each rector in his sector is seeing what he reinforces and what he does,” says Daniel Salas.

For his part, Costa Rica’s President, Carlos Alvarado, does not hesitate to promise that 2021 will be a better year.

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“I would tell you with certainty because we are working on it. It is not that we are going to singularly solve the problems of all. But I can tell you, looking into your eyes, that we are going to be better. We are working to make it so,” was the president’s response when asked what he would say to the man on the street, going from door to door, surviving daily by selling anything, because he has no formal job, no home of his own.

In its report, La Nacion, says it asked the same question to Minister Salas, leader of the team responsible for managing care for the immediate effects of this pandemic.

“I would tell him that we continue to work hard so that opportunities for economic reactivation are generated. But that progress goes is to take care of everyone. The spirit, in the end, is moving forward.

“The human being always has to have that internal strength: I do it for my family, for myself, for my country. I would tell him not to lose heart, that opportunities are going to be generated,” assured the good doctor.

In addition to leading the fight against covid-19, the minister has also suffered the most painful effects of this crisis: the death of his father is among the 2,833 fatalities (up to march 5) associated with the coronavirus.

Last July, a demonstration was organized in front of Casa Presidencial against measures to contain the spread of covid-19. That month, unemployment reached a historic figure: 24.4%. Photo: AFP

Covid-19, the great slap

The new coronavirus also exposed existing inequalities and unresolved problems in the country. It did not cause anything new. It was only the accelerator.

For the director of the State of the Nation Program, Jorge Vargas Cullell, the pandemic has been “a slap in the face” for the country, and for those who have the responsibility of governing it.

“The pandemic did not invent our problems. It was a catalyst. (…) it caught Costa Rica at an extremely delicate moment: it caught us after a decade of declining economic growth, and in an economy that was not generating employment. We had the historically highest unemployment rates before the pandemic hit us,” he said.

Data released last Thursday by the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC) indicate that in Costa Rica there are 468,000 unemployed, a rate of 19.1%, as measured from November to January.

This is lower than the historical 24.4% between May and July 2020, but much higher than the 12.3% corresponding to the quarter from November 2019 to January 2020.

The latest National Household Survey, from last October, revealed that poverty affected 26.2% of the population, the highest figure in 28 years. There are 419,783 households that cannot meet their basic needs.

“The great task that has to be solved is that the crisis does not spread to the next government. There is little time to know if they have set up the route to solving the state’s solvency crisis. What I do know is that if we don’t do it, the consequences will be very serious,” the analyst warned.

To the list of duties, Cullell adds the so weakened state of education that it received a near-fatal blow from the pandemic.

Among the inequalities that the first year of the pandemic revealed is the unschooling of hundreds of thousands of students, without access to computers and the Internet. The Ministry of Public Education (MEP) estimates about 18,000 children did not appear to start the 2021 school year.

“We have had a terrible year for the education sector. The hit has been very different. Not only between the private and public sectors, but within the public education system, between centers that had the capacity to react and others that did not,” says Vargas Cullell.

Gabriela Murillo Sancho, Director of the School of Public Health at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), says that there is no “crystal ball” to guess what is going to happen, either at a personal, institutional level or as a country.

“The pandemic is not something that has disappeared. We cannot stay in the past, but neither can we deny history. If we had employment problems, they deepened. What the vaccine will allow is to return to jobs or generate new ones.

“It allows us to mobilize more, it will still improve the quality of life, but it is not because of the vaccine that other conditions will improve. A significant country effort is required. Health is a social construction, and it goes far beyond vaccination,” warned Murillo.

The health worker compared this crisis to a great wave, which always hits and causes changes.

The director of the Development Observatory of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), Carlos Murillo Zamora, warns that with COVID-19 the time has come to formulate more efficient, and effective public policies.

“You cannot formulate a health policy to address the problems of the Chorotega region, thinking about the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM), because the realities are very different. Public policies are comprehensive. A health policy cannot be disconnected from educational, production and industrialization policies because society is one,” warned Murillo.

The analysts’ have given their warnings.

To paraphrase the Israeli thinker, Yuval Noah Harari, then, “if the pandemic continues to paralyze economies and kill humans, it will be a human failure, and more precisely, a political failure.”

Article translated and adapted from La Nacion “País inicia segundo año pandémico con 3 tareas urgentes: vacunar, reactivar economía y recuperar educación “. Read the original (in Spanish) here.

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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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