Latin America Advisor

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How Is Uruguay Avoiding the Worst of Covid-19?

Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou was faced with the coronavirus pandemic soon after he took office in March. // File Photo: Uruguayan Government. File Photo: Uruguayan Government.

Uruguay has stood out in Latin America for avoiding the worst of the coronavirus pandemic—with no exponential growth and a low death toll—while its neighbors are seeing some of the highest levels of Covid-19 cases in the region and, in the case of Brazil, in the world. Why did Uruguay see lower levels of coronavirus contagion than its neighbors? How well has the government of President Luis Lacalle Pou responded to the health crisis and its economic consequences? To what extent will its neighbors’ economic woes affect Uruguay’s road to recovery?

Giovanni Escalante, PAHO/WHO representative in Uruguay: “Uruguay’s favorable results are a result of compliance with international health regulations. The country has demographic, geographical, economic and social characteristics that have helped to cope with the arrival of Covid-19. Uruguay’s rapid and timely response to the disease has as key ingredients: a national integrated health system of mainly public funding; a unique command from the highest level of government, with the involvement of all social and productive sectors, the support of all key actors, including political parties; and a population with responsible civic behaviors. Simultaneously, the leadership of the health sector was remarkable, having implemented smart strategies, such as calling for national and international expert groups, activating digital innovation tools and e-government in health, as well as the extensive Internet network and a law on audiovisual media services to respond to the demand for assistance regarding Covid-19. Also, the country has well-developed care. It has an active epidemiological surveillance system that allowed it to activate all the necessary containment and response barriers at all levels of care of the public and private health services networks. To date, the cumulative incidence curve shows a stable pattern, indicating disease containment in the country. According to official reports, as of June 9, no new positive cases were reported for two consecutive days, and there were only four Covid-19 patients in intensive care units.”

Ignacio Bartesaghi, dean of the business studies department at the Catholic University of Uruguay: “As time goes on, it is confirmed that Uruguay is one of global references in managing the health crisis caused by Covid-19, especially considering that its neighboring countries face enormous crisis management challenges. Many wonder which factors explain the country’s successful response to such an unprecedented crisis, one that even exceeded the ability of the world’s most powerful players to react. First, it is worth noting the presidential leadership of Luis Lacalle Pou, who did not hesitate to take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the virus at the national level, while seeking the delicate balance between the health, economic and social factors. This whole process was carried out with an intelligent communication strategy and with the involvement of the entire political system and academia. Second is that, beyond some minor political opportunisms that soon lost force, the country again showed strong institutions, which responded adequately to the challenge. The seriousness that the government portrayed, with very loaded definitions and rationality, encouraged conservative Uruguayans to make very good use of their liberties, which made it unnecessary to implement mandatory lockdowns. All these factors, today considered successful in terms of health, will also be reflected in the performance of the economy and social behavior. Without forgetting the fiscal deficit, which will obviously increase and will not be able to meet the goals the new government had set, the country is expected to experience a smaller drop in production relative to the region, achieving a more accelerated recovery, and—thanks to the concept of good use of freedom—once the pandemic is over, a new phase with higher levels of political and social cohesion will begin. All this will result in the continued strengthening of the good international image that the country already has.”

Nicolás Saldías, senior researcher at the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program and Argentina Project and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto: “Uruguay has the lowest number of Covid-19 cases in Latin America and, at the time of writing, it has recorded no new cases for two days in a row. The low numbers are not due to a lack of testing—Uruguay’s per capita testing rate is more than three times higher than in Argentina. It is not clear why Uruguay avoided the fate of its neighbors, but below are some likely reasons. Uruguay has the lowest poverty rate in the region, and comparatively few Uruguayans live in the dense informal settlements that surround other Latin American cities. Uruguay’s urbanized core is surrounded by a sparsely populated interior that acts as a barrier to spread, especially from Brazil, which has an uncontrolled outbreak. An outbreak in the border city of Rivera earlier this month is, so far, under control. President Lacalle Pou counts with, by Uruguayan standards, unprecedented popular support. Polling shows that his approval rating has hovered above 60 percent since taking office in March, which translates to a high level of trust in the authorities. Lacalle Pou did not impose a strict quarantine to balance the economic and epidemiological concerns. Nevertheless, mobility data shows Uruguayans followed the rest of the region in reducing mobility. Economically, the IMF and private estimates show that Uruguay will be one of the few countries in the region to see a V-shaped recovery from the pandemic. The biggest threat to reverse these gains is complacency and an unforgiving winter.”

Juan Andrés Moraes, faculty member at Universidad de la República in Uruguay, and Scott Morgernstern, professor of political science and former director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh: “Although it is a small country surrounded by and dependent on two of the largest economies in Latin America, Uruguay has taken an independent path in dealing with the pandemic. Brazil has one of the highest infection rates in the world, and its president has denied the seriousness of the issue and has not attempted a serious response. Argentina, meanwhile, did attempt an early and restrictive quarantine, but without much success. By contrast, Uruguay has taken advantage of its historically strong social welfare state and high level of social capital to develop a highly effective strategy for dealing with the crisis. It has closed its borders (though its northern border is porous), enforced social distancing and, in spite of it now having a center-right government, it has activated its social-services sector. The result has been very positive; on June 10, Montevideo tested 900 people and found just three infections, and none were reported on June 11. Uruguay was governed by a leftist coalition between 2005 and 2020, and while ideological polarization had been on the rise, it has dropped under the new government of Luis Lacalle Pou as the country faces the Covid-19 crisis. Lacalle Pou had complained about the fiscal heritage left by his left-wing predecessors, but he has been proactive in containing the economic and social consequences of coronavirus by ‘bringing the state back in,’ with more expenditures on social programs and unemployment. In contrast to his party’s historical positions, he has increased the spending based on debt and new taxes on public servants. The positive results in Uruguay (so far) may be the product of the country’s history of a strong welfare state, built across generations. Now more than ever, these institutions have shown their vitality by supporting the population with food and health. Again, Uruguay’s unique history and strong welfare state system have put this small country’s exceptionalism into a positive light.”

Rosario Medero, economist, former professor and former president of Antel: “Uruguay’s government policy has been swift and successful. From the beginning, classes were suspended. The government’s response did not include a mandatory quarantine, but instead it asked people to stay home if it was not necessary to leave. The government asked for responsibility and defended the basic principle of freedom. Going outside was never prohibited, nor was it ever mandatory to wear a mask. Uruguay also has other advantages that differentiate it from its neighbors, including a good medical system with coverage for all citizens. It also has an excellent communication system and Internet reach that allowed many people to continue working and studying from home. President Lacalle Pou’s response has been fantastic. Those were the words of the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay. The president has taken control since the beginning and has been transparent with information. Data on the number of ill, deaths and recovered are published on a website that is updated every day, with great swiftness. The government has paid unemployment benefits, and those who are still out of work continue to be paid. Our neighbors’ situations will affect Uruguay’s recovery to a great extent. Argentina is doing very badly economically and in relation to the pandemic, and Brazil has a very irresponsible president. We know our GDP will fall this year, but we’re counting on a recovery in 2021. The country’s agro-exporting base has not been too affected, and it has continued functioning.”

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