STORY

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The Costa Rican Solidarity

I would’ve never imagined that my first story from Costa Rica to the world would be documenting the coronavirus pandemic from my personal perspective. It never crossed my mind that I’d be telling a story from my home country during the difficult times of this global health crisis.

But it happened.

And now, I have this great professional and personal responsibility of showcasing Costa Rica to the world.

I have to tell to the world how a tiny Central American country with a population of only five million people, five percent of the world’s biodiversity, with no military forces and a strong robust democracy relies heavily on one of its main traits: solidarity.

I have the great fortune of sharing with the world how my home country decided to use solidarity to an advantage. I’m very lucky to show how Costa Rica the solidarity is strong during a very difficult time where the “invisible enemy”, known as the coronavirus or COVID-19, is making the world crumble down.

Or the world is rebuilding itself in another manner. Who knows.

But, I must go back in time to explain this. I have to go back to March 11th: my last day in Madison, Wisconsin for the near future.

My nine-day spring break to Costa Rica would become a five-month stay back at home with my family.

An empty Chicago O’Hare International Airport. | Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno | COVIDA |

I had a slight suspicion that my trip would be longer than I expected because of the text sent that morning by UW-Madison stating that face-to-face classes had been suspended.

That day, I finished packing and took the bus from Madison to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. When I got to the airport it was surprising to see people wearing face masks and constantly disinfecting their seats.

I waited for a while and then got on to the airplane. Next to me there was a man wearing a face mask, gloves and carrying wipes to clean the seat and the table in front of him. I stared at him quite surprised and then carried on with the flight.

The beautiful and mesmerizing sunrise. | Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno | COVIDA |

At least, during those tense times I saw a beautiful sunrise through the window. The colors were mesmerizing and calming.

I then got to Fort Lauderdale and continued with my next flight to get back home. It was a short trip back to San José, Costa Rica and as soon as I laid my feet on the ground I felt a certain calm and tranquility being home.

It felt as if I sort of had “escaped” things before they began exploding in the US, but it would soon start getting serious here in Costa Rica.

Little did I know, that the Costa Rican government would start implementing strict measures. Those included the closing of bars, restaurants, schools, universities, religious congregations, beaches, staying at home,  implementing social distancing, and telling residents that if they left the country they’d automatically lose their residency status.

The measures would get stricter and stricter. That meant that we’d have to change our lifestyles as a way to help each other out during a time were people were quickly losing their jobs. Along with that, tourism, one of the country’s strongest industries and main sources of income, would be completely shut down.

It was a very sudden change. It was clearly explained by the authorities handling the emergency that it was all an act of solidarity to help each other out as a country to avoid saturating the public health systems and diminish the amount of deaths. 

An empty street in Barrio Escalante, San José on a Friday night. | Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno | COVIDA |

Yet, in my life, as the days went by, I enjoyed my short spring break. At the time I didn’t even know that I’d throw out the window my school projects I had been working on for the past three months.

Then, my break ended and I got back to business through online school. I remember logging on to Pat’s – my awesome journalism professor – classes the first week “back to school”. She would tell us that we could change our angles to something related with the coronavirus for the podcast and documentary stories.

Doing the homework on the roof. | Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno | COVIDA |

I immediately thought I’d do mine about the coronavirus in Costa Rica.

I impulsively embarked on telling the story from my personal perspective because that was what made sense on how to share the story from Costa Rica.

I thought about doing a documentary showing how two of my best friends – Daniel Rudín and Jordi Louzao – are living life during the coronavirus.

And I also thought I’d try to contact Dr. Román Macaya: the Executive President of the Costa Rican Social Security System. He is also one of the main authorities handling the COVID-19 emergency in Costa Rica.

But, I never thought that I’d get such great material from both of my friends and Dr. Macaya, who has his hands full dealing with the crisis.

 

My friends, Daniel Rudín, Jordi Louzao and I during the coronavirus health crisis in Costa Rica. | Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno | COVIDA |

Yet, somehow it all came together. Somehow my concept of COVIDA, a multimedia story about the coronavirus in Costa Rica, came together in just one week. The documentary was very clear since the beginning as well as the Sharing the Life podcast.

The podcast sprung out from my curiosity in exploring how journalists here are covering the health crisis and how this impacts them on a psychological level.

I was lucky enough to get a quick response from Costa Rican journalists Andrea Mora and José Andrés Céspedes, who work at DelfinoCR and La Nación, respectively.

I never thought I’d be asking them very personal questions on what this crisis makes them feel when covering it on a daily basis. Thankfully, they were really open with me when answering my questions.

Then, Elvira Yglesias, a Costa Rican clinical psychologist, analyzed their answers. Meanwhile, Dr. José Enrique Acuña, a Costa Rican psychiatrist, explained to me on a general level the psychiatric implications that this has on journalists.

As time went by, after transcribing and re-reading these interviews over and over, I noticed that there was a common factor amongst all these people. It was the solidarity very ingrained in them that was very evident.    

Just as Dr. Román Macaya said in the COVIDA documentary, “Costa Rica has its own idiosyncrasy and equity and solidarity are very ingrained in our being.”

This idea of solidarity was a constant throughout this project as the main motivation that moved the people to share their stories.

While interviewing the clinical psychologist Elvira Yglesias, she mentioned that solidarity was one of the main traits that characterize our identity as a country.

“In Costa Rica we have a value of solidarity that has been very characteristic of identity as a country,” she told me. “To really care about the other people. Our public health system is based on solidarity as a value. This is a moment when we need to call very strongly on that value.”

And that value has been present day to day on the actions from both of the public and private sectors in very distinct ways.

One of them is the government’s creation of an economic program called Proteger, which translates to protect. It seeks to provide an economic subsidy to help families who have lost their main source of income due to the coronavirus.

It is also present in the case of the private sector where various businesses joined non-for profit organizations to donate food for vulnerable communities.

Such was the case of the Costa Rican Chamber of Exporters (CADEXCO) and Inchcape Suzuki coming together to donate foods from national producers to the NGO called the Integrated System of Art Education for Social Inclusion (SIFAIS), which helps the people of La Carpio, one of Costa Rica’s biggest slums.

Many examples like these ones abound during these difficult times, but one that is very clear no matter what country we talk about, are the health workers who are on the front lines.

In the case of Costa Rica, Dr. Macaya calls them the army of our nation.

“During the past days I’ve called the almost 58,000 workers of the Costa Rican Social Security System the army of Costa Rica,” he told me on the interview for the COVIDA documentary.

“Effectively, we don’t have a military army, but we do have an army whose mission is one of the most noble missions that can exist, which is saving lives, improving the patients’ health and maintain the wellbeing of our country,” he said.

VIDEO: Watch as health workers from the Hospital in Alajuela applaud for a COVID-19 patient leaving the ICU. | Via Delfino.cr |

With simple words like these ones, it was obvious to understand that solidarity is what has been making the difference in Costa Rica, the reason for which we’ve been making headlines internationally.

Such was the case for BBC News mentioning Costa Rica within Central America as the country with the lowest mortality rate in Latin America during the coronavirus crisis.

According to BBC News, this might be explained by a “public health system recognized internationally, marked by the universalization of the social security in the 70s and allowing the Costa Ricans an almost universal access to health services.”

And it was also the case of CNN in Spanish, where it was mentioned that the Costa Rican Institute Clodomiro Picado from the University of Costa Rica, is developing a treatment against the COVID-19. This is a pioneering initiative in Latin America, given that it’s the only institution in the region that is working on this.

VIDEO: Learn about the Clodomiro Picado Institute’s development for COVID-19 treatment. | Via CNN en Español |

The treatment consists on using the blood plasma from recovered patients to purify the antibodies, separate the proteins and then inject them on a COVID-19 patient.

This solidarity has been very present throughout the COVID-19 emergency, but just as any other country, there are certain flaws and the solidarity sometimes fails to function.

Such was the case when the government tried implementing a new “solidarity” tax to people whose wages started from $1,000 a month and up. The people were not pleased and then the government backed down.

The graffiti found in Barrio Escalante reads: “bullets and good decisions. No more taxes for the people,” all accompanied by raccoon. | Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno | COVIDA |

It also happened in the cases of three patients who were denied the COVID-19 tests in different public health facilities. However, these cases are not the norm amongst COVID-19 patients in the country given that the tests are provided for free. 

But, besides that, it’s been so many of the positive examples of solidarity rather than the negative ones, which brings me to this reflection: that I’m very grateful for my country. That there’s no other place I’d rather be during these very difficult times.

Even though we’re living in times where death is constantly repeated, Costa Rica is always pura vida or pure life just as we always say.

It makes me think on how grateful and blessed I am to live here, but it also reaffirms me what I had written for my UW-Madison application: being a small country is no limitation to aspire to do big things, even during difficult times.

And lastly, this also makes me think of Stephen Hawking’s phrase on The Theory of Everything: “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”