COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, Uruguay – The Uruguayan government has been hailed as one of the best COVID-19 crisis managers in the world. Despite being located between two of the countries worst affected by the pandemic – Argentina and Brazil where cases never seem to go away – Uruguay has experienced one of the smallest epidemics in the region, while the authorities avoided a mandatory quarantine.
In September, the British medical journal published an article under the headline: “Uruguay wins against COVID-19”.
The miracle did not last forever. A few months later, cases multiply by the hundreds every day, and experts fear it won’t be long before Uruguay, which has felt prepared, finds out the pandemic is out of control.
On March 13, when the first four cases of COVID-19 were detected in the country, the Uruguayan government assured the population that a mandatory quarantine would not be used in Uruguay. They said that it would be the responsibility of the population to respect the detention which, although recommended, has never been compulsory. Measures have been adopted by the government to encourage people to stay at home, such as closing schools, suspending shows and limiting public transport. They made it through those crucial first months.
As of September 20, only 1,917 cases of the disease had been detected in Uruguay and only 40 people had died. The death toll has now doubled, reaching 98 on December 16, and active cases in the country stand at around 3,500.
Natalia Venturini, a psychologist at the military school of the Department of National Defense, told the Daily Beast that the population had not necessarily been obedient per se, the terrifying images of the pandemic hitting Europe had initially frightened Uruguayans so that they take shelter. “Although containment was not mandatory, businesses chose to shut down and people stayed home, but I think it was all a product of fear and uncertainty,” she said. .
For many citizens, preventing what was happening in other countries was reason enough to stick to the government’s suggestions and take the necessary precautions, which helped prevent the spread of the virus.
Emilia Margor, who lives in the capital Montevideo, was one of those who stopped socializing and took the measures very seriously. “At the start of it all, I would say from March to July the care was pretty extreme,” she said.
But things changed very quickly. Given the relative success of its actions, the government has grown overconfident. He started to define a vision called “the new normal” – it was a gradual process, but he suggested to people that the worst of the threat was over. In May, they reopened the bars and restaurants that had decided to close, with a new protocol and reduced hours, and in early July the schools completed the last stage of the plan that had been taken to open them, remaining open to this day.
Dr Ricardo Bernardi, who is advising the Uruguayan government on its response to the pandemic, admitted to the Daily Beast that the way forward is not clear in the small Latin American country. “Right now there is a lot of uncertainty and expectation as to whether the measures taken are sufficient,” he said.
Bernardi – a specialist psychiatrist who is on the Honorary Science Advisory Panel – said people have started to lose patience with the restrictions. “The attention of the population decreased over time because the fear decreased and people started to feel tired and to need contacts and activities,” he said.
After months of emphasizing individual responsibility, Uruguay now faces a large segment of the population who decided that the situation in Uruguay was not so bad – so they should go on living.
In Montevideo alone, in a weekend of November, 195 underground parties were dissolved by the police. Many epidemics in different parts of the country can be linked to the Youth Day.
Alfonsina Devicenti, an 18-year-old student from the Colonia department, said people her age are now back to their old ways and there are parties all the time. There was a huge recent one in Los Fogones, a hangout in the city, where young people blatantly ignore guidelines. “A lot of teens here spend a lot of time outdoors with other teens in very large groups,” she says.
Dr Néstor Campos, former president of the Uruguayan Medical Association, told the Daily Beast that the government’s messaging campaign has failed with young citizens.
“There has been so much emphasis on the fact that COVID does not cause serious effects [among the younger age groups], that young people lose respect for it, ”he declared. “We need to continue to communicate and engage more with young people, and also take rigid action even if it is unpopular.”
Venturini, the psychologist at the Defense Ministry’s school, admitted that the population had followed the government’s example and started to relax too soon. “The fact that the government has never decreed compulsory detention undoubtedly affects the fact that we have ‘relaxed’ and abandoned the voluntary quarantine that we have done,” she said. “Perhaps with a stricter regulatory framework, as in other countries, the situation would have been different.”
This sudden spike in cases, which continues to rise, worries health experts and threatens to overwhelm hospitals in some areas, but it is also having a significant economic impact. Tourism is huge for Uruguay with over 3 million visitors each year, which is equivalent to its entire population. With borders closed, many companies had hoped domestic tourism would make up some of the shortfall this summer, but the surge in COVID cases has dashed those hopes.
Not everyone is panicking yet, Dr Jorge Mota, former departmental director of the Department of Health in Colonia Department, told The Daily Beast, that rates were still relatively low globally. “I think something like this was to be expected, because since the virus has community circulation, it makes sense that more and more people are in contact with it,” he said.
For most experts, however, the situation is at risk of getting out of hand.
As the pandemic increases, the ruling National Party is still popular. For now, it is largely seen as the fault of the public, not the government, that cases are skyrocketing. But there are more and more voices saying that tougher measures would ease the situation.
For now, Uruguay is retracing its steps, imposing limits on the opening of restaurants and threatening to end “the new normal”. The question remains: does the government still have the power to persuade the country to heed its warnings?
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