Michael Mora, 30, left for the United States two years ago. The search for the so-called “American dream” led him to leave Puntarenas and travel to New Jersey, with the aim of saving money and then starting a business in Costa Rica.
But COVID-19 took his life in April.
He is one of the 23 Costa Ricans who have died in the United States since the first coronavirus case appeared there in January.
The COVID-19 pandemic has inundated the entire planet with death, as daily headlines show. The United States and Costa Rica are no exceptions. But the health impacts are hardly comparable; the number of Costa Ricans who have died in the North American country doubles the death toll in Costa Rica itself.
So far, 35 Costa Ricans have lost their lives to COVID-19 worldwide, according to official data from the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Health.
Of the total, 23 deaths are registered in the United States, 11 in Costa Rica and 1 in Spain.
More dead in the U.S.
According to data from the Central American Population Center of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), some 250,000 Costa Ricans live abroad, of which 125,000 are in the United States.
Carmen Caamaño, a researcher at the UCR Institute for Social Research, says one of the main factors influencing the numbers of deaths of Costa Ricans in the U.S. is the absence of a public health system, which makes immigrants less likely to be cared for when they become ill. Furthermore, there is no standard primary health care, while in Costa Rica the Ebais network fulfills this task.
“Insurance also has small print. They can take care of a break but maybe in the small print it says that only one x-ray is covered. In the end, you don’t know if the bone was well healed because you only have access to one x-ray,” Caamaño said.
In addition to this, the anti-immigration policies pushed by US President Donald Trump make it harder for some people who are ill to seek help, for fear of being jailed or deported.
“When there are undocumented people, there is terror of appearing in hospitals. This increases the risk of infection and death. Many of them are dying at home,” the researcher said.
Another important element is that the work performed by the majority of Costa Ricans in the U.S. is related to the service industry and construction; that is to say, they are dedicated to tasks that are not teleworkable and that in and of themselves constantly expose them to risks.
“In the case of undocumented people, they are in a more vulnerable condition, since they have to accept any condition from employers so that migration police do not detect them, send them to prison or deport them,” Caamaño added.
Overcrowded and poorly fed
Along the same lines, the former dean of the UCR Faculty of Medicine, Luis Bernardo Villalobos, said that in the United States many Costa Ricans — due to their irregular migratory situation — live in small apartments where it’s easier to contract SARS-CoV-2.
For example, there are cases where several people share a space and even share beds in shifts. In addition, many of the migrants also have dietary deficiencies.
And on other occasions, language barriers or inconsistent work hours create obstacles to learning the latest health information.
“It is easier for a person who is in irregular status to the United States to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than a person who does have regular (documented) status and has an education,” Villalobos said.
For his part, the researcher at the UCR and now vice-rector for Student Life, Carlos Sandoval, stressed that many Costa Ricans living in the United States are in the states of New York and New Jersey, two areas hit hard by the pandemic.
Libaniel Urbina, a Costa Rican who works as a hospital services operations manager at a New Jersey hospital, commented that the medical center where he works was the epicenter of COVID-19 in that state.
“With the attention of the emergency, operations were canceled, only emergencies. We were not prepared,” he said. “Our department was and is essential in this process because we take care of laundry, cleaning and transport of patients. Currently, the influx of positive cases has decreased.”
Sandoval also noted that in Costa Rica, the proportion of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus is growing among migrants, mainly Nicaraguans.
“It is increasingly difficult not to associate the increase in positive cases with migration, and that becomes very challenging because it is also difficult to distinguish the health issue from xenophobia,” Sandoval said.
“No one chooses to get sick. Just as Costa Ricans living in the United States did not choose to get sick from coronaviruses, one could say that the Nicaraguans who got sick here did not choose to get sick.”
Under-reporting of deaths
There are currently 23 Costa Rican deaths recorded in the United States with an age range between 24 and 88 years old: 13 in New Jersey, 4 in New York, 2 in Pennsylvania, 2 in Miami, 1 in Massachusetts and 1 in Utah, according to data from the Foreign Ministry.
But the true number may be higher.
According to the Costa Rican ambassador in that country, Fernando Llorca, there could be an undercount of Costa Rican deaths in the U.S. because official death reports are typically not transferred to embassies. Consular offices record deaths only if a relative or acquaintance reports it.
“There could be many more; however, with the official number so low that we have in the United States, we have already doubled the number of deaths in Costa Rica, and more so,” Llorca said.
Regarding the migratory status of the deceased, the Foreign Ministry said that some of them had an irregular migratory status, while others had legal status.
Llorca, also a former executive president of the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) and former Minister of Health, added that in the United States, Hispanics and African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
According to data from the Foreign Ministry, through the end of May, 91 positive cases of SARS-CoV-2 were recorded in Costa Ricans living in the U.S.
The ambassador highlighted that the U.S. and Costa Rica have coordinated repatriation efforts between the two countries.
So far, 13 flights have been carried out, which has allowed the repatriation of 1,191 Costa Ricans, foreign residents or first relatives of Costa Ricans.
After the flights arrive in Central America, U.S. citizens who are on Costa Rican soil and want to return to the U.S. can do so.
A version of this story was originally published by Semanario Universidad on June 3, 2020. It was translated and republished with permission by The Tico Times. Read the original report at Semanario Universidad here.