What distinguishes Uruguay in Latin America

Aside from the big headlines, Uruguay is doing remarkable work in the fight against corona

The South American state shows that with good organization and decisive action, even a less prosperous country can be successful in the fight against the coronavirus.

Uruguay rarely receives much attention worldwide. The country is best known to a broader public in Europe for its first-class national football team and as the venue for the first football World Cup in 1930. It is not a wealthy country, but one in which the social differences are not as pronounced as in the rest of the world Region. That is why it used to be referred to as the Switzerland of South America.

The better social equilibrium and well-functioning institutions, especially of course in the health care system, may have contributed to the fact that Uruguay was not as overrun by the pandemic wave as other countries in the region. By June 3, the country had, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University, with a total of 3.5 million inhabitants, only 826 infected and 23 fatalities. The death rate per 100,000 inhabitants is 0.65. For comparison: In neighboring Brazil it is 12.2, in Chile (the country with the highest average income in the region) 4.5 and even in Argentina, which is also fighting a comparatively successful fight against the coronavirus, 1.1.

While the pandemic has not yet peaked in most of Latin America, Uruguay has been able to gradually reduce protective measures since April. The construction industry has been working again since April, and the shops were able to reopen last month. Schools were also opened, first in the countryside and then in the cities.

Disciplined citizens

The first corona case was discovered in Uruguay on March 13th. The country then immediately took the measures that are known from most other countries: the borders were closed, flights were suspended, schools and churches were closed, and major events such as football tournaments and concerts were canceled.

However, a curfew for the population has not been decreed. President Luis Lacalle Pou, who has only been in office since March 1, rejected this on the grounds that in this case the government would have to be ready to intervene with harsh sanctions up to imprisonment against offenders, which he does not see as expedient. Rather, he relied on voluntariness and appealed to the citizens' sense of responsibility to stay at home. His strategy worked. In surveys, over 90 percent of respondents supported this government recommendation. Most of the stores closed voluntarily because customers stopped coming.

Well prepared health system

Uruguay was also able to benefit from its comparatively good health system and infrastructure. Almost the entire population in the country has access to drinking water - a requirement for hygienic protective measures - which is by no means the case in other countries in the region. The center-left governments, which ruled the country for fifteen years until March last, invested heavily in health care. For ten of those fifteen years the country was ruled by a medical specialist, a doctor and professor of oncology, with Tabaré Vazquez.

A comprehensive health system was created that integrates the public and private sectors. Home care is emphasized and there is a health service across the country that handles emergencies before they have to be referred to hospital. Corona patients were therefore tested at home and, as far as possible, cared for there, which reduced the risk of the virus spreading. In addition, it was tested very broadly. Uruguay took more than three times as many tests per 100,000 inhabitants as Argentina and Brazil. And this, mind you, with a test that was developed in the country itself.

Wage cuts for politicians

Uruguay also took unconventional paths in financing the economic costs of the corona measures. The wages of the president, ministers, parliamentarians and senior state employees have been cut by 20 percent, and the resulting savings will be fed into a corona fund. Uruguay also applied for credit lines early on from institutional banks in the region (Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo and Corporación Andina de Fomento) and was thus not affected by the rising interest rates on the volatile financial markets.

Julio Vignolo, the epidemiological advisor to the Uruguayan government, admits that the success in the fight against corona is not only due to the measures taken by the government, but also to certain favorable conditions in Uruguay. This includes, for example, the relatively low population density. The approximately 3.5 million inhabitants live in an area that is more than four times the size of Switzerland. The general lack of large cities also helped. In addition to the capital Montevideo with 1.3 million inhabitants, the population of the other cities is a maximum of 100,000. You have to reassess the situation every day. The virus will not go away anymore.

DISCUSS WITH. Correspondents in conversation: Latin America. How is this part of the world coping with the corona pandemic? What are the issues beyond the crisis? Benefit from an exclusive insight into the situation in Latin America, learn more about the life of our local correspondent and ask your personal questions. June 10, 2020, online event. Tickets at nzz.ch/digitalk