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May 8, 2020

Vincent Delgado: Lessons from Costa Rica

May 8, 2020

Vincent Delgado is the director of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities Program on Sustainability in Costa Rica. He is also coordinating director of the Network for Global Civic Engagement.

Recently, my son Diego, 7, said he wanted to go back to the U.S. to get more Legos.

We explained that should we leave, the government wouldn’t let us back in for a long time, and we don’t have a house in Michigan.

Pablo, 11, asks important and hard questions about what is happening in the U.S. Why are the numbers so high? Why can’t the government trace who has it? Why are some states opening when numbers are still going up?

When I arrived to start the MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities Program on Sustainability in Costa Rica in 2016, I knew that Costa Rica would have a lot to teach students, researchers and even U.S. community partners about sustainability. The country’s electric grid is 99 percent renewable. The military has been abolished for 70 years and the money saved is plowed into social programs.

For a decade, RCAH had been building a robust network of community partners, scientists, foundation leaders, government ministry officials and others – all working at the vanguard of community development in a country known for its sustainability.

What I didn’t know then was how clear and quickly this learning would come.

Hurricane Nate hit within a year. Landslides peppered the countryside, washing out bridges and crushing villages. We had four feet of water coursing through our yard for three days. We held classes behind sandbags. Yet, the country suffered few deaths and communities came together to rebuild.

Over the years, our students have collaborated on research with community leaders across the country. Students and researchers have learned about fiscal reform, popular movements, the legacy of foreign debt and the promise of pluriversal sustainability and community autonomy.

Here we are in 2020 dealing with a global pandemic.

The first case, a U.S. tourist, was announced here on March 6, 2020. A team of students, completing Community Engaged Design – a joint RCAH/EGR spring break education abroad program built around a joint curriculum initiative called Peace Engineering—were on planes back to the U.S. the next day.

Two days later, the government declared a national emergency. One week later, we were following the government’s request to “quedar en casa” (to stay home). Schools were canceled – as were most flights and all soccer matches. Bars, restaurants, beaches and national parks were closed.

In early April, Costa Rica announced vehicle restrictions – effectively creating evening curfews and even daily ones – depending on license plate number. Many indigenous communities cut off access to their territories.

With programs canceled and access cut off, my wife and I had an important decision to make. Do we stay here to weather this storm? Or do we head back to Michigan? In Michigan, cases were about even with Costa Rica at that time. And even though classes had moved online at MSU, it appeared that people were still allowed to move around. Still, we decided to stay.

Costa Rica is known to have one of the most robust public health systems in Latin America – if not the world. We still had more to learn. Plus, trying to figure out the logistics of moving a family of four, plus two dogs and two cats and an uncertain quantity of Legos during a global pandemic probably made the decision easier. The U.S. Embassy organized what they said would be the last flight out of Costa Rica on April 17. We were not on the plane.

It has been surreal to watch the paths diverge between Michigan and Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a population of about five million people. Michigan has about ten million. Yet, the numbers of those diagnosed with COVID-19 differ vastly. On April 3, Michigan recorded its highest number of new cases: 1,953. A week later, Costa Rica recorded its highest number of cases to date on April 9: 37.

Costa Rica remains officially in Phase 3 of the virus with the ability to identify disease clusters and track the movements of the virus. Phase 4, community spread, does not appear likely. In Michigan, family members have come down with the virus. The nursing home where my mom lives has had a significant outbreak. Friends and colleagues have lost loved ones. I don’t know anyone here in Costa Rica who knows someone personally with the virus. Our partners, many of whom are rural and indigenous communities, report no cases.

It is hard to say exactly why the two places are so different. But I can say what I’ve observed. Costa Rica hasn’t really had the same debate here about the impact on civil liberties and the economy that we are seeing in the U.S. There have been no protests. People are concerned about their livelihoods. There has been little finger pointing. More than that, Costa Rica has a long history of sustained educational and public health investment. 

A group of MSU students attending an RCAH course in Costa Rica as part of a study abroad experience.