Sweden-Costa Rica: Same Paths on Climate Change, Different on COVID-19

Two countries that have long coordinated their response to global goals like promotion on democracy, human rights and environmental issues, Sweden and Costa Rica highlight how public policy matters
Cloud forest in Costa Rica. Credit: Germán Miranda/IPS
  • Opinion by Rene Castro Salazar, Brian Harris (rome/santiago)
  • Inter Press Service

Using Gompertz mathematical modelling, we have analysed both countries' responses to COVID-19 and found that the human and economic impact of COVID-19 will be greater in Sweden than in Costa Rica. Through May, Costa Rican public policies have resulted in fewer deaths and positive cases (in both absolute and per capita terms) than the much more economically developed Sweden.

The different results through June 21-- Sweden attributing 5,053 deaths to COVID-19 compared to Costa Rica's 12, according to John Hopkins University, cannot be attributed to geography, ethnicity or even Sweden's slightly older population.

Additionally, Sweden's economy is much bigger and spends more on health care than Costa Rica, dedicating 11.1 percent of its larger GDP to public spending on its health care system compared to Costa Rica's 7.3 percent of GDP. In both cases, these countries' universal public health systems are often cited as exemplary models in terms of the breadth and quality of services provided to their populaces, especially in comparison to countries with comparable levels of development.

The crucial element of distinction between the impact of COVID-19 in the two countries can mainly be laid at the feet of their public policies.

Sweden recorded its first COVID-19 case on January 22 and did not record a second until February 26, when its infection "curve" began its upward trend that our models indicate will reach its peak in late July with around 46,000 infections over 190 days. Costa Rica's first case was detected March 6, but given its policy response we project its curve began to flatten in mid-April, just 35 days after the outbreak was detected. Both countries host large migrant population that appear to be less integrated in to the health systems and have higher rates of infections than citizens.

It is also noteworthy that, while Costa Rica's initial COVID-19 testing policy was to test patients showing potential symptoms, Sweden restricted its testing only to patients showing severe symptoms. Undetected cases not reflected in national data are likely in both countries, but are not reflected in our mathematical models. In any case, given how new COVID-19 is, no universally accepted standard for testing exists.

Despite this, the wide gap in confirmed cases and deaths between the two countries clearly shows a greater and more prolonged impact in Sweden.

Although we should be cautious in drawing conclusions, Costa Rica's more interventionist response and actions to control the spread of the pandemic may very well explain the shorter time period and flatter curve the lesser developed nation has recorded compared to its highly developed counterpart.

Costa Rica's COVID-19 response was to take quick action in an orderly manner, starting with preventative public information campaigns and the prompt introduction of restrictive measures including the isolation of patients and the implementation of social distancing which culminated in a nationwide quarantine that saw borders and schools closed and movement within the country highly restricted.

Notoriously, Sweden went for a very different approach emphasizing individual responsibility by advising citizens to practice social distancing without restricting movement, only closing borders to non-Europeans and barring gatherings of more than 50 people. The architect of Sweden's COVID-19 policies has since conceded this response disproportionally affected most vulnerable people like the elderly.

While the two countries enjoy very different development levels, both are seen as leaders in their regions in the areas of social services and health care—both provide their citizenry universal health coverage with infrastructure available nationwide. And both follow similar policy goals and approaches to issues facing future generations, especially with regard to climate change.

Both countries have enthusiastically joined 121 other nations in a concerted and coordinated strategy to attain so-called "carbon neutrality" by 2050—in 2019 Costa Rica's net per capita emissions were 1.61 tonnes while Sweden's were 4.03 tonnes; the United States' net per capita emissions were 16.5 tonnes. Sweden has focused its emissions reduction policies on its energy and transport sectors, while Costa Rica (with its abundant hydroelectric resources) is focusing on its diesel-dependent transportation sector.

In both countries, the forestry sector- and its ability to remove or "sequester" carbon from the atmosphere- plays a fundamental role in the short- and medium-term efforts. But for both, the long-term solution lies in energy efficiency by adopting measures to reduce emissions per kilowatt hour generated and per kilometres travelled to decrease their use of fossil fuels.

Sweden has focused on emissions reductions in the energy sector, specifically by reorienting production to so-called renewable sources including hydroelectric and reducing fossil fuels and nuclear dependency. By 2030, Sweden's energy sector aims to reduce its emissions by 44 percent and its transportation sector by 30 percent from 1990 levels.

With an emphasis on the forestry sector to attain their net emission goals, both have been implementing parallel fire-prevention and control policies to avoid the devastation wrought in other forest-dependent countries of late.

Fires in both Sweden and Costa Rica have occurred with less frequency and intensity over the last decade as a result, according to NASA observations. That is no guarantee that fires will not pose a threat in the future, but with forestry potentially sequestering 37 percent of total emissions in Costa Rica and projected to capture 18 percent in Sweden, both countries have established similar fire prevention policies and administrative structures.

In Costa Rica, succeeded in phasing out fossil fuels in its electricity generation and legal reforms helped push forest cover from 21 percent of the country's territory in 1996 to 54 percent in 2018 and its sequestration needs will fall to 33 percent of emissions by 2050 or roughly one tonne or carbon per person per year. Now, the country needs to transform its transportation into a cleaner and more efficient one.

Sweden and Costa Rica can both attain carbon neutrality by 2050 if political consensus remains unchanged. But with the impact of COVID-19 estimated at reducing Sweden's GDP in 2020 by 9.7 percent and Costa Rica's by 3.6 percent, attending to the immediate impact of the virus will be a higher political priority than the high levels of investment needed for mitigating climate change over the coming decades.

Combatting COVID-19 in the absence of a vaccine, as with confronting climate change, will require international cohesion. The wide gap in cases and deaths between Costa Rica and Sweden tragically highlights that, as well as how real global public challenges like health and environmental crises need government interventions.

Doctor Rene Castro graduated from Harvard University and is currently ADG for FAO on climate change and biodiversity; he served as a minister in the ministries of foreign affairs and environment and energy of Costa Rica between 1994-2014.

Brian Harris is a Chilean-American consultant with extensive experience as a foreign correspondent and in the global coffee industry as the former president of Chile's coffee association ANAPAC

© Inter Press Service (2020) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service