By Joe Garvey

Ambassador Dr. Fernando Llorca Castro, Costa Rica's envoy to the United States, said that battling the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges in his country, and that skepticism and disinformation has exacerbated the situation.

"The most difficult challenge we've faced is the information, that it's fake. The information, that it's unreal, not based on scientific evidence," he told a virtual Old Dominion University audience on Friday. "And it has been terrible because you have to be not only fighting the pandemic but at the same time fighting ignorance all the time."

Llorca discussed his country's response to the pandemic as part of the Provost's Lecture Series. He is the first ambassador from his country to speak at ODU.

Costa Rica, which has a population of about five million, had 118,566 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,502 deaths as of Nov. 10, according to the U.S. Embassy in the country.

Llorca, whose country is rated as having the third-best health-care system in the world according to the Annual Global Retirement Index, said Costa Rica moved quickly to try to contain the pandemic.

By Jan. 6, the government declared a green alert, "which was the first step to accept the situation of a national emergency," Llorca said. That was two months before the country identified its first confirmed case.

Costa Rica declared a national emergency on March 16, when it had 41 confirmed cases. Llorca said the country put in place a "moderate lockdown."

The country's borders, tourism, large events, discotheques, bars and eventually schools were closed. But Costa Rica did maintain some industrial production, basic commerce and international trade.

"We didn't shut down or turn off the country," he said.

Llorca added that Costa Rica focused on protecting vulnerable populations. Among other steps the country took were implementing an aggressive track and trace, seek and isolate program; developing COVID detection tests and ventilators; and looking at its water supply to detect traces of the virus.

Over the first 14 weeks of the crisis, Costa Rica's COVID cases were caused primarily by tourists or Costa Ricans who had traveled internationally. The country reported 0.24 deaths per 100,000 people and a case fatality rate of 0.8%.

But eight months later, those numbers had increased to 30.26 deaths per 100,00 people and a case fatality rate of 1.3%. Llorca attributed that largely to transport drivers and agricultural workers who came from outside the country and either tested positive, were asymptomatic carriers or knew they were infected but didn't declare it. He also said the country lost track of some cases.

Among the challenges the country will have to address moving forward:

  • Closing the gap between private schools, which have access to online teaching technology, and public schools, that lack that capability. "It has been a terrible, terrible problem," Llorca said.
  • Improving the COVID register-and-report program.
  • Increasing financial support for the most vulnerable.
  • Helping the country's tourism industry, which has been a big hit to Costa Rica's economy.
  • Taking action to decrease conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes and obesity, which put people at more risk from COVID.

"We now realize that a powerful hospital system is not enough to defeat the COVID," Llorca said. "We should focus on primary care and prevention strategies. Health is a human right, definitely."

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