Coronavirus In Central America: A Summary And A Song Of Hope

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, it’s inevitable that we’d be affected in Central America. Here we offer a summary of how we’re dealing with coronavirus in Central America and talk about how we just might be in a position here to dodge a bullet.

This article has taken me forever to write. Or I should say I’ve written this, rewritten this, and rewritten this again as the news changes every day. I knock out a thousand words here, two thousand there, and they’re all meaningless a few hours later.

It’s been a struggle trying to reconcile exactly how this website can talk about COVID-19.

In the end, I guess it’s best to go back to basics and remember what this site is about in the first place. Generating a conversation about Central America. Creating a place to read about, and understand, this region through the eyes of those of us who live and travel here.

So let’s talk about coronavirus in Central America.

I’ll kick off by saying I’m not a health professional. Some might say I’m not any kind of professional but that’s another story. I am quite good at common sense pragmatism though, and we’re going to need a lot of that with this pandemic.

Coronavirus is here in Central America as we always knew it would be.

At this point, it’s ludicrous to count individual cases, as it changes all the time. But at point of writing, it’s now in Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras. So far we’ve had two deaths from the virus in the region, in Panama and Guatemala.

Expect Nicaragua, Belize, and El Salvador to join the club in the coming days, assuming it’s not already circulating undiagnosed in these countries, of course. Which as a realist, I’m sure it is.

I don’t believe for one moment in this globalized, connected society that COVID-19 isn’t everywhere by now.

And in the case of Nicaragua in particular, I don’t believe the Ortega regime would admit it if coronavirus was there. But I won’t get started there, it’s neither the time nor the place.

A quick glance at the Nicaragua Facebook groups, though, will tell you most people there don’t believe the regime’s official line.

In the Central American countries with coronavirus, we know who “patient number one” was and where they picked up the illness.

The first case in Honduras came from a pregnant woman who’d arrived from Spain. Costa Rica’s first case arrived with a tourist on a flight from New York. Guatemala’s first infection came from Italy, and Panama’s Spain.

At this point, we could file the above info as “incidental”. After all who cares where it started at this point?

But to me it’s important as it a) shows we have our shit together somewhat (which in Central America is often a major achievement in itself). And b), it offers authorities a way to track who these first individuals met and where they were. This allows them to reach out and isolate people they might have infected.

Overall, I have to say it’s impressed me how we’ve reacted down here. Not at all bad for a bunch of tiny, developing countries.

So what have we done?

Well, this is the most fluid part, the part which kept delaying my writing this thing.                                  

Every time I was about to publish, things changed. Or my thoughts changed. So expect whatever we say here to change, too. But this is how it stands right now:

Panama
As the most affected country in Central America so far, Panama has taken a strident approach to coronavirus. Right now, the country is in lockdown with nobody apart from Panamanian citizens and legal residents allowed to enter, as long as they self-quarantine for 14 days. Flights from Europe and Asia are banned, and all schools, shops, and businesses closed, except for supermarkets and pharmacies. Some restaurants are open, but only for take-out or delivery.

Costa Rica
Costa Rica was the first country in the region to experience coronavirus. Right now, all schools and universities are closed, as well as bars, clubs, and casinos. Restaurants can stay open as long as they stick to a strict 50% of their capacity limit. From March 18th, Costa Rica will close its borders to everyone except for citizens and residents until April 12. Citizens and residents who enter the country will receive a medical check and must quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Nicaragua
Nicaragua claims it has no coronavirus. That said, people are stocking up in supermarkets and private universities are closing.

Honduras
Honduras has closed its borders for one week, from March 16 to March 23, to all travelers apart from Honduran cities and residents, who will need to undergo quarantine if they enter the country. There is no public transportation in Honduras, all buses are off the roads, and schools shut down. Most businesses are also closed apart from grocery stores and gas stations.

El Salvador
El Salvador still has no official cases of coronavirus and the government wants to keep it that way as long as possible. The country has locked down its borders to all but citizens and residents for three weeks. Anyone eligible to enter El Salvador needs to quarantine themselves for 30 days. El Salvador has also restricted freedom of movement and banned public gatherings. Schools and universities are also closed.

Guatemala
Guatemala closed its borders this week for a period of two weeks to non-citizens and non-residents. All shops and businesses are closed apart from the essentials (food and gas). Liquor sales are also prohibited at night (from 6:00 PM). Guatemala is no longer accepting deportation flights from the US.

Belize
Belize doesn’t any official cases of coronavirus yet. It has, however, prohibited entry to anyone coming from certain countries including China and most of Europe.

Forgive us for the brevity of the above info. It’s only a snapshot and we will be writing more in-depth info on each country in due course.

So will these restrictions work?

That’s the ten million dollar question, isn’t it? The truth is, no-one knows. These are unprecedented times.

It’s true that locking down China did work. New infections of coronavirus have dropped to a trickle in that country. But Central America isn’t China and no country here has the will or the way to completely lock down its citizens.

And there’s always the fear in China that once they completely relax the draconian measures the took, that coronavirus will flare up again.

This is why, say, the British government is taking a different approach in trying to encourage a “herd immunity” to this thing.

The theory is if they can oversee a “controlled infection rate” among the young while protecting the elderly as much as possible, then that will somewhat mitigate then any future flare-ups. We don’t know if that will work either.

No one knows anything and this is why we’re so afraid.

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises against the travel restrictions we’re seeing all over Central America and the wider world. They say travel bans don’t help in any case once a virus is spreading through a population, and that they can hinder aid and technical support.

What travel bans do is make people feel safer by convincing citizens their government has things control and taking a strong stance. But in reality, it’s like a band-aid on a gunshot wound, with wrecked economies and shattered reputations being the main achievement.

But in the case of Central America, seven small countries with small populations, maybe travel bans are a good idea? After all, the WHO does state that travel bans are acceptable at the very beginning of an outbreak to buy some time.

And with the short-term travel bans of most Central American countries, maybe that’s what they’re doing right now. Buying a bit of time.

Let’s hope that in the coming weeks we see these bans lifted as per WHO policy.

I’m hopeful they will be.

I’m actually – and this will sound mad right now – quite hopeful for Central America in this crisis.

Again, I’m no expert, but I see factors in Central America that bode well for controlling this virus.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not in denial here. I’m no wide-eyed optimist – I’m a cold realist. I’m not in the “it’s-just-the-flu” camp by any means and I know we’re going to lose more people in this part of the world. And like everyone else who works in tourism, I know how this will affect my livelihood and the livelihoods of many of my friends.

But looking under the hood, I don’t believe things will get as bad as China or Europe in Central America. I could be eating these words in a couple of weeks, but I don’t think so.

For a start, there’s evidence this virus doesn’t like hot weather.

I know, I know. I sound like I’m grasping at straws. But some initial studies suggest the coronavirus is heat-sensitive.

It would make sense if it was. Coronaviruses are nothing new and as a rule, they thrive better in colder, drier weather. This is why we have cold and flu seasons. I know coronavirus is brand new, and we don’t know enough about how it works yet. But it would be amazing if it was so tangibly different from its cousin viruses we know about.

It’s worth pointing out the main outbreaks of coronavirus in the world all exist at around the same latitude.

If you look at a global map, you’ll see the main hotspots are all roughly between 30 and 50 degrees north (Wuhan, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Pacific Northwest). A recent research paper puts these hotspots in a temperature range of 5-11 degrees celsius with 47-79 percent humidity.

Now is every affected country within this specific latitude corridor and this temperature range? No. Singapore, for example, on the Equator, has almost 300 cases to date. But – and here’s a huge but – Singapore has not lost anyone to this illness (yet). Does that mean the disease is less potent in hot, tropical climates?

If so, here in hot, tropical, sunny Central America, we may well catch a break compared to more northern climes. We might find this thing doesn’t spread as fast as we’re seeing in the main hotspots, and what does circulate may not be as bad. Like in Singapore.

All the countries with double and treble-figure fatalities from coronavirus are in that 30-50 degree north corridor where the weather is colder during this time of year.

I should say that the initial studies I’ve talked about here are not peer-reviewed in any way yet, so don’t get too excited.

But it’s a cause for hope, no? Again, I don’t believe I’m clutching at straws here, I’m only looking at the science.

Another cause for hope here in Central America is our demographics.

We all know that the overwhelming majority of people who get a serious illness with this thing are older. The vast majority of younger victims of coronavirus experience either zero, mild, or moderate symptoms.

There’s a chance you might have already had coronavirus and never knew. This is why I reckon the true numbers of those infected are far higher than official figures say. Which would put the fatality rate way down, too.

Putting whatever I reckon aside, though, it’s common knowledge that Europe, North America, and China have aging populations.

It’s been a problem for years in these parts of the world, both socially and economically. Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world, which goes a long way to explain why the fatality rate for coronavirus is so high. Germany and Japan have aging populations, too, both countries hit hard by this virus.

China’s median age is younger than that of Italy, Germany, and Japan who all place in the mid-to-late 40s. The median age in China is 37, a little younger than most western European countries, but still older than anything in Central America.

The “oldest” country in Central America is Costa Rica with a median age of 31. Panama’s median age is 29, Nicaragua’s is 25, Honduras’s is 23, El Salvador’s 27, Guatemala’s 22, and Belize’s also 22. The global median age is 30, so only Costa Rica comes in older than that.

The point is, Central America is young.

There’s a higher percentage of younger people here than in Europe, China, Japan, and North America (median age of the US is 38 and of Canada is 42).

So it’s logical that with a smaller percentage of older people, we’ll see a smaller percentage of severe and fatal cases of coronavirus in Central America. Even the biggest gloomsters and naysayers can’t disagree with that.

Of course, every death is a tragedy, and we’ll be lucky if the amount of fatalities in the region remains at the two we have right now. We can’t be complacent about this. We have to self-isolate to protect the elderly and more vulnerable, no matter what percentage of the overall population they are. But I can’t see the same rates that we’ll see in those older populations elsewhere. It wouldn’t make sense at all.

Again, I’m not singing kumbaya here at all, or plucking out reasons to be cheerful out of my behind. I’m only looking at some limited studies and the tiny amount of data we have so far and extrapolating it. It might be that latitude, sunshine, and age makes zero difference and this is the apocalypse. We simply don’t know yet.

It’s going to be hard, I’m under no illusions about that.

But I truly think we’re in an optimal place in Central America where we can get through this with less upheaval than elsewhere as long as we look after each other and follow the rules.

I know the chances are slim of actually dying from this thing. I know we’re a young population and all the stuff I just said. But we can still pass this to older, more vulnerable people. 

Now there are serious worries here, of course. Although we’ll see many milder to moderate cases here compared to severe ones, I worry how our Central American health systems will cope. Most of them are creaking at the seams before all this.

I also worry about the Central American economy.

As someone who works in tourism, as I said earlier, it’s terrifying. Here in Costa Rica, tourism accounts for almost 10 percent of the economy. The travel ban has wiped out tourism and I fear the social and economic impact of that will be far worse than the illness itself.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must.

If I’m right about the region getting off lighter than elsewhere, once we lift the travel bans, we can sell ourselves as a haven from this disease. We’re in the right part of the world to do this. And on the other side of this, we’ll reap the benefits together as a region.

In the meantime, let’s take care of each other and try not to panic. This will pass. And like I’ve been saying, we’re lucky to be here in Central America rather than somewhere else right now.

James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.