In a pandemic, there’s no place I’d rather be than here in Uruguay
We are a country overshadowed by our bigger, flashier South American neighbours or confused with Paraguay. So as a small, under-stated country at the end of the world we’re used to relying on ourselves.
The government acted swiftly. The day the first coronavirus cases were announced in Uruguay — a nation of 3 million people and 12 million cattle — , it ordered the immediate closure of schools and publicly-owned entertainment.
It was March 13, a Friday as it happens. That evening I went to the cinema — for the last time. The 100-year old Solis theatre next door, like all other publicly-run venues in the city, had cancelled the evening’s show and was shrouded in darkness. All football matches had been canceled too. As my Argentinian husband said, if the football is off, this thing is serious.
The next day privately-owned venues where crowds gather began to announce voluntary closure. The following week shopping centres and restaurants and bars followed. Some restaurants tried to facilitate social distancing by removing half of the tables. But the vast majority of Uruguayans were choosing to stay at home anyway.
Uruguay is the South America outlier
Uruguay is an outlier in Latin America. In an overwhelmingly Catholic sub-continent, Uruguay enshrined the complete separation of church and state in the Constitution over a hundred years ago. Its political parties are some of the oldest in the world. Education has been free and mandatory regardless of gender and race since the 1870s.
It is the most egalitarian country in the region and last year Montevideo, the capital, ranked the best city for quality of life in South America. Since 2003 the Uruguayan economy has seen positive economic growth, fueled by agriculture and tourism. We are also well-positioned in other rankings such as literacy, life expectancy, access to health care access and more. So it’s no surprise that Uruguay is often called the Switzerland of Latin America.
Quarantine in Uruguay is voluntary
Even until now, a month after the first cases were announced, quarantine in Uruguay continues to be voluntary. The government has chosen to appeal to the nation’s civic sense of collective responsibility and solidarity rather than introduce punitive measures.
Because Uruguay has excellent connectivity and is the only country in the world to have adopted the One Laptop Per Child initiative nation-wide and as 85% of elementary schoolchildren have the tools to access online educational content, switching to teaching remotely was a natural choice. Mobile providers, both public and private companies, are offering internet access at heavily discounted rates.
The pandemic will be horrific to countries where healthcare is already under pressure. Here access to healthcare is a right regardless of your ability to pay. Public hospitals have been much improved as part of a health reform carried out over the previous decade. The government launched an app which publishes the latest statistics including numbers of people tested and contagion cases. Users register and use the app to solicit assistance through their public or private service provider if they have symptoms.
There has been virtually no panic buying. Certainly not of toilet paper as Uruguay is a nation of bidet users. Like most people I buy pretty much all my groceries from the small supermarket around the corner from my home. They deliver. You just have to ideally call in the morning to ensure a speedy service. The cashiers use visors.
We’re used to relying on ourselves
When it comes to the pandemic worldwide, as the survivors of Flight 571 who survived 72 days in the Andes mountains realised, no one comes to the rescue of a remote South American nation. So Uruguayans are used to doing it alone. In fact one of those Andes survivors, a paediatric cardiologist, is leading one of the multiple research efforts to build our own respirators.
In the last few weeks, local scientific institutes including the public university — state-funded and free to attend — mapped the COVID-19 genome present here in Uruguay and developed a coronavirus test. After initial delays, yesterday Uruguay tested almost 800 people. The goal is 1,000 per day which the Health Ministry estimates will put Uruguay on a par with rates of testing in Germany and South Korea per capita.
Sadly nine people — all older with underlying conditions — have died. However, one month after voluntary quarantine was urged of its citizens and residents, on April 16 the number of people recovered (just under 300) overtook the number of active cases (207).
Uruguay has always been a unique country in Latin America. Its response to coronavirus has once again demonstrated its specialness.
Karen A Higgs is the author of The Guru’Guay Guide to Montevideo (2nd ed.) and the Amazon bestseller The Guru’Guay Guide to Uruguay: Beaches, Ranches and Wine Country and is the creator of the Guru’Guay website, a popular English-language website for travellers and expats. She has made her home in Uruguay since 2000.