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The Voice

Weathering New Waves in Central America

by Stephen Deal on May 27, 2021

The word “wave” in the title of this update is not a reference to the surf at one of Costa Rica’s popular beaches, but rather to the latest surge in COVID cases which began unexpectedly after Holy Week. Costa Rica is in the middle of its 3rd wave since the COVID pandemic began in March 2020. This wave has been worse than the previous two. As a top public health official said recently, “The pandemic is worse now than it has ever been, and the worst is yet to come.” 

The likely causes of this 3rd wave were the arrival of new, more contagious variants from other parts of the world; at the same time, a significant percentage of the population prematurely abandoned tried-and-true prevention measures (hand washing, the use of masks and physical distancing), despite repeated warnings to the contrary. 

As for how Costa Rica is progressing with the COVID vaccine, the news there is a bit more encouraging. I’m fortunate to be among the 9% of the population (around 440,000 people) that has been completely vaccinated (I think the comparable figure for the US right now is 36%). The system for administering the COVID vaccine is patient friendly. The vaccination is free. Costa Rica is good at running national vaccination campaigns. That’s not the problem. Rather, like most nations in the Global South, the country is totally dependent on vaccine shipments from pharmaceutical companies in the US and Europe. With more vaccine deliveries, Costa Rica could accelerate its vaccination campaign. Without more vaccines, it will be extraordinarily difficult to “flatten the curve” of the current wave, plus the risk persists of additional waves of COVID cases over the rest of 2021. 

The remainder of this update will be focused on the newest wave of children and families who are emigrating north by the thousands, in hopes of finding refuge in the US. Much like the daily counts of COVID cases, there has been extensive media coverage of the number of migrant children trying to enter the US from Mexico, as well as the treatment they receive while in the custody of Customs & Border Patrol (CBP) agents. By law, children are not supposed to held more than 72 hours in CBP holding cells. At the beginning of this new wave, too many migrant children were held for too long. By the end of March, more children were transferred to shelter facilities, where the staff were equally overwhelmed by the large number of children needing immediate shelter. With fewer numbers and media coverage starting to wane, one might conclude that the crisis is over. But that would be a premature conclusion.  The current wave of migrant children along the US Mexico border is the 4th since 2014.

Beyond a singular focus on the number of children who are arriving, an equally relevant question is: “Why do they keep leaving their countries of origin?” The AMMPARO strategy adopted overwhelmingly by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2016 identified the principal causes as “...extreme violence, poverty, lack of access to educational and employment opportunities, and environmental displacement...” Not much has changed - the driving forces behind Central American migration will not weaken anytime soon. Slowing this migration exodus will be just as challenging as ending the COVID pandemic, maybe more so. It will take years of sustained effort with a focus on the root causes. 

More than ever, we need to heed the advice of our AMMPARO companions in Mexico and Central America who have been working directly with migrants and their families for years. I invite you to help us amplify their voices. If you aren’t already involved, now is a perfect time to join the growing movement of ELCA members, congregations and synods who are part of the AMMPARO network. 

To learn more and to participate in AMMPARO activities in your area, visit their website, or follow them on Facebook.

Your companion in global mission, 

Stephen Deal 

ELCA Missionary 

San José, Costa Rica

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