We can learn a lot from Uruguay about tackling COVID-19

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Uruguay curbed the corona virus with no mandatory lockdown. Other countries can learn from this, write S. Pelin Berkmen and Natasha Che of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “The secret of Uruguayan success is no secret at all.”

On June 29, about 250,000 students returned to school in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, a milestone in the return to normal life after COVID-19. For most other Latin American countries, that return remains a distant dream.

While the virus continues to wreak havoc on the continent, the daily number of new cases in Uruguay since May tends to be no more than one figure, although some outbreaks have recently been identified.

No lockdown

Uruguay still has a high test rate in Latin America, despite the contamination rate being one of the lowest.

Most surprisingly, Uruguay has achieved this without resorting to a mandatory lockdown, even though it is the Latin American country with the highest percentage of over-65s, the highest-risk age group. Why has the country managed to stem the epidemic so far? And what can other countries learn from his experience?

From the beginning, Uruguay took the threat of Covid-19 very seriously.

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When the first four imported cases were confirmed (on March 13), the government (which had been in power for only two weeks at the time) declared the state of health emergency. She canceled public events, partially closed the borders, and introduced mandatory quarantine for travelers from countries with high levels of infection.

Closure of major shopping centers

The next day, an awareness campaign about good health practices and hygiene was launched. A presidential decree ordered the suspension of classes and the closure of major shopping centers.

The Uruguayan government convened an advisory group of scientists, led by top medical experts, and coordinated its actions with the private sector.

The speed of the measures taken, scientific advice in decision-making and the use of innovative technologies were three central features of the Uruguayan approach.

Large-scale tests

The country started large-scale testing early on and created its own diagnostic tests and contact research technologies. Close monitoring of infection zones has facilitated early detection of virus spread and isolation.

Uruguay still has a high test rate in Latin America, despite the contamination rate being one of the lowest. Preventive measures, such as the use of mouth masks, were applied earlier than elsewhere in the region.

The government publishes news daily and uses mobile apps, chatbots and social media to keep the population well informed about the pandemic.

The Coronavirus UY mobile app enables case tracking and alerts when detected cases come close.

Trust in the government

The high level of social cohesion and confidence in the government provided widespread support for containment measures. It increased the effectiveness of public campaigns that encouraged people to work from home and companies to shut down.

While most measures were not mandatory, many business organizations and unions voluntarily agreed to temporarily suspend activities in sectors such as construction and retail.

Even the tourism sector participated in the awareness campaign, against its own interests. One of the most important associations in the industry called for people to stay at home during Easter week in April.

Transparency

The government took several economic measures, including the establishment by law of the Coronavirus Fund, which transparently allocates and reports on budgetary resources to address the health emergency. This keeps people in control and accounts for where and how money is spent.

The creation of this fund, funded in part by temporarily cutting the wages of the President, ministers and highest-paid officials, received the support of all political parties and was unanimously approved in Parliament.

Health infrastructure

An important decision of the new government was to extend the sickness benefit to all over-65s in the private sector.

The broad coverage of health infrastructure has also contributed to the success of Uruguay.

Healthcare accounts for more than 20 percent of general government spending, compared to an average of 12 percent in Latin America. Medical care is free for the most vulnerable residents. According to 2017 data, there are 5 physicians for every 1,000 people in the country, compared to an average of 2.3 in the region.

Hospital bed availability is also one of the highest on the continent, and steps have been taken quickly to increase the number of intensive care beds and ventilators.

Social protection

One of the most comprehensive social protection systems in Latin America has enabled Uruguay to protect the health and financial resources of the most vulnerable part of its population.

Because automatic stabilizers such as health and unemployment insurance operate efficiently, broad segments of society receive medical and government support for family incomes.

An important decision of the new government was to extend the sickness benefit to all over-65s in the private sector so that they could stay at home.

Poverty

Although the national poverty rate has increased since 2018, it remains below the regional average, especially among older people. The same goes for inequality and informal work. This combination of factors, together with the low population density, may have helped mitigate the spread of the pandemic, especially outside the capital Montevideo.

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© John Wessels / AFP

In conclusion, we can say that the secret of Uruguayan success is no secret at all. The country is reaping the benefits of a long-term institutional effort and an emphasis on welfare economics, social cohesion and individual freedom with social responsibility.

Due to Uruguay’s strong democratic tradition, citizens trusted public health policy guidelines and recommendations. This led to very high compliance with the voluntary quarantine and compliance with social distance measures.

The government’s quick, transparent, inclusive, and scientifically substantiated response allowed the Uruguayan parents to return their children to school with relief.

S. Pelin Berkmen is the IMF Head of Mission for Uruguay, Natasha Che is an economist for Paraguay and Uruguay.

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