The Value of Vigilance: Costa Rica’s First-Year Response to COVID-19, 2020


In early January 2020, when the World Health Organization announced that SARS-CoV-2 had spread beyond Wuhan, China, and represented a public health risk of international concern, Costa Rica was better prepared than other countries in its region. The Central American nation had years earlier developed preparedness and response plans to deal with swine flu, avian flu, Ebola, and other infectious diseases and had updated them in 2018. There was high confidence in both the country’s universal health-care system and the government health-care teams that served even the remotest regions of the country. Doctors had access to an up-to-date database of medical histories that covered more than three-quarters of the population of about 5 million. However, the country also had some vulnerabilities: more than a fifth of the populace lived in poverty; many jobs were associated with international tourism—a sector likely to be hit hard in a pandemic; and the government was wrestling with a fiscal crisis that had started years earlier. Weeks before Costa Rica confirmed its first case of COVID-19, ministries and national institutions began work to procure medical supplies and equipment, set up financial and social assistance programs, and develop a road map to build resilience for the tourism industry. When the virus appeared in early March, the national government declared a state of emergency within days to ensure that every ministry and institution could contribute effectively to the pandemic response. Initial confirmed infections were relatively low in number, but as case numbers grew through 2020, collaborations with partners both national and international led to innovative solutions to avoid a nationwide lockdown and make Costa Rica the first country in Latin America to safely reactivate commercial air travel and international tourism before year’s end.


Miguelángel Verde researched and wrote this case based on interviews conducted during August, September, October, and November 2021. Case published January 2022. This case study was supported by the United Nations Development Programme Crisis Bureau as part of a series on center-of-government coordination of the pandemic response.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations, including UNDP, or the UN Member States.

public trust
crisis response
disease control
Focus Area(s)
Pandemic Response
Critical Tasks
Core Challenge
Trust and legitimacy
Country of Reform
Costa Rica
Case Studies
Miguelangel Verde