Costa Rica is accustomed to weathering many storms, but the coronavirus pandemic may be the toughest. April is a time when beaches would normally be packed with tourists. Markets would be bustling and stocked with fresh fruit picked daily. Coffee houses serving up local brews. Today, the beaches are empty, businesses are closed; the tourists are gone, and Ticos are staying home. The peak tourism season is ending on a zero note.
The National Emergency in Costa Rica has altered life throughout the country. Like so many places around the world, they have also closed schools and businesses, eliminated gatherings and severely limited travel. While the main city of San Jose has good hospitals and access to PPE, ventilators, and general medical care, many communities around Costa Rica have small clinics which are unprepared to handle the complexities of treating a COVID-19 patient. Limiting the spread of the virus is their best defense.
For our partner, Grupo FINCA (and MiBici) moving operations to telework has been a challenge. Grupo FINCA is an organization focused on empowering small communities through financial support of micro-businesses (MiBici facilitates this through bikes). One of their biggest strengths is being close to their clients. They do regular site visits and work directly with community members to help promote and expand their operations. Now more than ever, FINCA needs to stay close when their clients need them most.
Currently, FINCA is reaching out to all their clients to make sure they are all well and healthy. If they are showing any signs of coronavirus they are asked to report to their local clinics where they will be tested. Trained healthcare professionals will then determine if it's necessary to transport them to a larger facility for more advanced care. Secondly, FINCA will be assessing any financial hardships among members.
Most FINCA clients are owners of low income businesses. They need to keep working to cover their food expenses, housing costs and utility bills. Many have no access to affordable financial services, which is where FINCA hopes to help. They are working to help them reorganize bills and rethink their business models. Microloans and other services offered through FINCA will play a critical role to help bridge any interruptions to members' incomes.
On Chira Island residents feel somewhat more insulated, but no one wants to leave the island. This leaves Juan Carlos, who runs a ferry service between Chira and the mainland, without fares. He has gone without pay for nearly a month already. Juan Carlos is also the president of the empresa (co-op) on the island and reports that clients weren't willing to make the short journey on foot to the main office to make their loan payments on the first of the month, even though they had the money.
For coffee producers, FINCA is working on a solution. They are trying to sell coffee direct by sending a container to the U.S. This would be a shift to selling bulk beans to be warehoused in the U.S. and then distributed to medium and small coffee roasters/shops. Meanwhile, large scale pineapple plantations are in free fall mode. Prices have slashed in half putting the cost of harvesting pineapples to equal what customers are paying. Currently, farmers are willing to work for 'cost' but if the price falls much lower they won't be able to continue working. Pineapple fields will be abandoned for the season and the crops will be lost.
This is a hard time for everyone around the world. Even if COVID-19 never finds its way to tiny Chira Island, all the residents there will be impacted. We are all hurting, Together, Alone. This week marks Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) an important time for Latin American Catholic families. The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is typically packed with religious festivities, processions, and masses. It is the country's most important religious holiday, a time to honor Jesus and embrace family. This year there won't be the elaborate celebrations in the streets, but much more personal observances taking place with families together, honoring traditions the best they can, alone.