The country where I live is far from perfect, but it is, from what I can see, providing support during this massive crisis to anyone within its borders, as best it can. The government is providing subsidies to families in Costa Rica who do not have a way to eat – regardless of their immigration status. It provides them with free health care, too, but it does that all the time. It is hardly worth mentioning in this country where I live.
All over the world, I see people huddling together with the beings in their physical proximity. It’s what happens during times like these. We are getting to know our neighbors, whether we are chatting at a safe distance from stoop to stoop, or picking up groceries for someone, or just giving a bizarrely enthusiastic “How are you?” to people we’ve never seen before as we pass them on a walk. (The need to greet comes from our loneliness, and also from the need to show we are not being rude when we scutter to the far side of the street.) Some people are even quarantining with whoever happened to show up just before everything shut down: Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Stranded hotel guests and their hotel owners. Politics make strange bedfellows, and pandemics make unexpected housemates. We grab whomever is near us and we bunker down.
I rambled on about this idea in my Facebook Live last week, a disheveled video that I broadcast sideways. I talked, still discombobulated, about the sudden rain that knocked a clay-colored thrush nest out of our banana plant and onto the ground. I pushed aside the twigs with a stick to find one baby yigüirro trapped beneath. My family has watched for weeks as the mother gathered twigs, sat on her eggs, fed her hatchlings: it took my breath away to see the baby up close, as if I were glimpsing a celebrity. His mother was nowhere to be seen. It was me he opened his little yellow mouth to, soundless.
I was beside myself, disproportionately upset. I jittered and fretted until we got the nest back up into the plant and until, long after nightfall – notable only through the slightest movement in the darkness, a whoosh of darker black against the dark sky – I saw the mother return. I realized in that moment how tiny our physical worlds have become, how limited our opportunities to actually do something for someone else with our hands. My whole world seemed to depend on whether that baby bird would be ok. I had no idea how to make sure of that, but I knew it had to be done. What else would I do, closed into my house like a snail in a shell?
It is not easy, perhaps, for a government to take that approach to all the people within its borders when the pandemic strikes. It should be easier for the richest country on Earth than it is for a developing country with limited resources. But it’s not. Costa Rica, imperfections and all, has been showing an understanding of this basic idea: the people who are here right now belong to us. Immigrants or nationals, insured or uninsured, documented or undocumented.
What would Jesus do? What would any figure do right now whose message of love we revere? The “how” can be tricky, even impossible. The “what,” however, is obvious. I am seeing that “what” happen around me, here in Costa Rica. I am seeing that “what” being rejected out of hand by the government to which I submit my tax return. To which I pledged allegiance as a child and a schoolteacher. To which I owe, in part, the stability and freedom of my upbringing. That government, which has committed many wrongs over the years under the authority of various men, is now rescinding government aid even from U.S. citizens who are married to non-citizens. Somehow, that piece of news hit my gut particularly hard, made my mouth gape open like the baby bird’s. (I’m sure it was partly out of selfishness: if I were living in my own country, I might not be eligible for support, should I need it. If Costa Rica took this approach, my husband might be ineligible.) It is impossible not to compare this to some of the darkest chapters in human history.
It feels that we are sinking down. “What would Jesus do?” ask the bumper stickers. You can see people all over the world, of all faiths and walks of life, looking for more immediate sources of inspiration as well. Mine is a bureaucrat I do not know, someone with her head on straight, or maybe just following orders from people with their heads on straight. Someone in a developing country without an army. Someone reviewing the thousandth form of the day, this one a cry for help from an undocumented immigrant who has lost the job he worked so hard for and needs to feed his children.
She clicks, “Approved. A transfer has been made to your account.”
Maybe I’ve been reading too many books about fairies, but I think a little spark goes up from her fingers when she hits that key. It’s the tinest speck of light, but there are a lot of them from all over the world. The most dangerous thing, as the undertow sucks at us, would be for us to lose our sense of direction, the way my own country’s leader and those around him have lost theirs. Those little specks of light make a dim glow through dark water. They show which way is up, and out, and through.
I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! If you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.