Latin America has become the new center of spread for the COVID-19 pandemic. Distressing images from Guayaquil and Manaus are met with riots in Santiago, Chile and the empty thoroughfares of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Today, most of the continent lives under strict quarantine.
Uruguay is an exception, with the country seeing the shallowest decline in mobility in Latin America.
Only weeks into office, President Lacalle Pou defied calls for a mandatory quarantine, seeking to balance the pandemic and the economy by instead emphasizing social distancing measures. It was a risky political and epidemiological move, as the likely trajectory of spread was still unknown.
So far, the country has avoided exponential growth of COVID-19 cases and a surprisingly low death toll, with 789 confirmed cases and 22 deaths— notable, as Uruguay, along with Chile, has the oldest population in Latin America. Yet Uruguay’s low number of confirmed cases is not due to a lack of testing, as the country has the third highest rate of testing in the region.
After two months since the start of the pandemic, President Lacalle Pou announced that he will gradually reopen schools, respecting social distancing measures. His confidence is based on arguments from local health officials that the country has the virus under “relative control.”
It is still too early to tell why Uruguay appears to have avoided the fate of other Latin American countries with much stricter lockdowns. However, the country has a number of pre-existing advantages that other countries in the region lack.
An important difference between Uruguay and the rest of the region is its low level of poverty. Government statistics show poverty in 2019 stood at 8.8 percent, with extreme poverty all but eradicated. Although neighborhoods with low quality housing exist in Uruguay, they are not in sprawling and dense neighborhoods that dot many Latin American cities. It is of little surprise that major outbreaks are occurring in the vastly dense villas of Buenos Aires and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Another advantage Uruguay has is its relatively good healthcare system. The number of hospital beds (2.8) per 1000 people exceeds the regional average (2.2). Child mortality, a good measure of healthcare provision and general health of the population, has Uruguay with among the lowest rates in the region.
Uruguay’s small population and large land mass also means the country has one of the most favorable population density rates in the region. As a result, Montevideo and its suburbs are like an island, with the sea to the south and vast grassland to the north separating it from the rest of the country and its neighbors.
Nevertheless, the authorities fear an uncontrolled outbreak in Brazil could spill over into Uruguay. Playing in Uruguay’s favor is that both sides of the border are sparsely populated. Given the low population density in the region, if cases are caught early, testing and tracing are more likely to work to stem the spread. Not willing to take any chances, the government has hardened its border with Brazil.
The success of the government’s efforts to control the outbreak also depend on a scarce intangible asset in the region: trust. According to Latinobarómetro data, Uruguayans have the highest rate of confidence in government. A local doctor, when asked about the success of the country’s response, said “Uruguay’s population responded well and abided by government regulations, making it possible to control the pandemic effectively.” President Lacalle Pou’s high approval ratings also help increase public trust in the ability of the authorities to pursue the best policies for the country.
Added to these advantages is the relatively positive economic forecasts for the country. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), government and private forecasts, Uruguay’s economy will also be one of the least affected by the crisis and will likely see a V-shaped recovery in 2021. To ensure a strong recovery occurs, President Lacalle Pou rejected calls for the government to raise taxes. The government was also able to eschew the costly bond market in favor of generous loans from multilateral institutions.
At the same time, Uruguay’s new government has taken a rare stance of charity in a world of defensive nationalism. The government’s new foreign minister and leader of the Colorado Party, Ernesto Talvi, an outsider to politics, has taken an aggressive approach to ensuring a humanitarian pathway home for those stranded in the region.
The most notable example is the rescue of the cruise ship Greg Mortimer, with passengers allowed to return home and crew members allowed to shelter in hotels on the mainland. These actions have won the country accolades from foreign governments.
Uruguay is not out of the woods yet.
The country still confronts a long, hard and cold winter, the type of conditions that allow communicable diseases, like COVID-19, to spread quickly. Even by global standards, Uruguay appears better positioned to avoid a possible collapse of its healthcare system. That said, the country must not rest on its laurels.