Uruguay has so far been able to stave off widespread contagion from Covid-19, thanks to large-scale testing and, it would appear, citizens’ common sense.
Sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina, where Covid-19 is having a devastating effect on those countries populations and economies, Uruguay has been much less affected by the pandemic, despite not having imposed a lockdown. Uruguay has reported just 27 deaths from Covid-19 thus far, and just 929 confirmed cases, but the latter number is not low due to a lack of testing, but rather the result of the comprehensive testing underway in the country.
“The key to our success has been a quick response detecting and isolating cases,” Rafael Radi, one of the government’s chief Covid-19 advisors, was quoted by The Guardian newspaper as saying. The country’s advantage is its size, as a small nation in comparison with some of its South American neighbors, and with a smaller population, of around 3.5 million. The country’s testing regime puts it fourth worldwide in terms of the number of tests conducted per confirmed case, behind only New Zealand, Australia and Thailand, carrying out 1,610 tests per case, in comparison with the US and the UK, for example, which have conduct only 52 and 21 tests per case respectively.
"The response to the pandemic was swift and steered by common sense, and for which the government has been applauded, having mobilized quickly"
Life without lockdown
But Uruguay is also an outlier for not having imposed a lockdown, unlike other countries in the region, and some of which, such as Colombia and Peru, are set to endure some of the longest in the world, with Peru having set July 1st as the date it will start to reopen its economy, while Colombia has extended its quarantine measures until July 15th. Colombia’s capital Bogotá however may re-impose a stricter lockdown if the occupancy of intensive care beds continues to rise, the city’s mayor Claudia López said this week, while, Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires will remain in lockdown until July 17th.
In Uruguay however, rather than imposing a lockdown, the government trusted the population to act responsibly, with “mutual trust controlling the virus,” The Economist quoted radio host Horacio Abadie as saying. Mirroring other countries’ contingency measures, Uruguay closed its borders and halted flights, closed schools and forbade mass events, such as sporting fixtures and concerts, once the first case had been confirmed in mid-March.
But while a lockdown was not imposed, citizens were advised to wear masks and practice social distancing, measures that appear to have been adopted by the majority of the population, according to local media. Uruguay’s health minister Daniel Salinas was quoted as saying by BBC Brasil that one of the reasons for the country’s success in containing the virus was the public’s awareness of it being highly contagious, and taking precautionary measures.
The country’s universal health system and solid hospital infrastructure and the fact that all citizens have access to clean water, were also described by Salinas as “decisive factors” that have helped Uruguay to keep Covid-19 at bay. And unlike in many other countries, health workers visited suspected carriers of the virus to carry out Covid-19 testing in their homes, rather than having patients visit hospitals and risking further contagion.
That aforementioned “mutual trust” may also be a reflection of Uruguay’s recent claim to fame as the least corrupt country in Latin America, according to the Capacity to Combat Corruption Index, compiled by Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and global consultancy Control Risks. The index examined 15 nations in the region, and has been published annually since 2015, and placed Uruguay in first place, followed by Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil and Peru.
The index studies 14 key variables, including the independence of judicial institutions, the strength of investigative journalism, and the level of resources available for combating white-collar crime. These variables are divided in three sub-categories: legal capacity, democracy and political institutions, and civil society, media, and the private sector. Countries’ overall scores are a weighted aggregate of these three sub-categories. “The reasons for Uruguay’s success range from strong enforcement mechanisms across the public sector and well established democratic institutions to an active civil society and a vigilant press,” according to this year’s edition of the index. “Also, the country’s size and higher level of development represent unique advantages compared to its Latin American peers,” the report states.
But the country’s relatively low number of cases is also despite Uruguay’s long land border with Brazil, a country which has so far reported more than 58,000 deaths, placing it behind the US as the second worst-hit country, and with more than 1.37 million confirmed cases. “Our greatest concern is the city of Rivera, where the border is only an imaginary line down the middle of an avenue,” the government’s advisor Radi was quoted as saying by the BBC. Rivera is a city of around 170,000 people, Uruguayans and Brazilians, and into which many Brazilians cross from the town of Santana do Livramento, across the border, to work and shop.
But the perceived threat of cross-border contagion has not appeared to materialize, and Uruguay has already begun reopening sectors of its economy, with the construction sector having resumed operations in April, and retail in May, while schools in rural areas have also reopened, according to the BBC. To counteract the negative impact on the economy, the government applied relief measures, which included the creation early in the pandemic of a ‘coronavirus fund’, created from the money saved as a result of a 20% salary cut for the president, ministers, legislators and public sector workers that were earning more than $1,800 per month.
The government also requested credit from the Inter-American Development Bank and the Latin American Development Bank (CAF), rather than tapping the more volatile bond markets. The response to the pandemic was swift and steered by common sense, and for which the government has been applauded, having mobilized quickly, given that President Luis Lacalle Pou only took office on March 20th, a week after the first Covid-19 case was reported in the country, and in what will likely be seen as a successful example of stepping up to the challenge without delay.
The pandemic is far from over, with the number of deaths and infections continuing to rise in Brazil and Argentina, but Uruguay is emerging as a regional success story that, hopefully, will continue to stave off a higher death toll and more serious economic damage.