COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, Uruguay—The Uruguayan government was hailed as one of the world’s best COVID-19 crisis handlers. Despite being located between two of the countries most affected by the pandemic—Argentina and Brazil where the cases never seem to end—Uruguay had one of the smallest outbreaks in the region, and the authorities avoided a mandatory quarantine.
In September, the British Medical Journal published an article under the headline: “Uruguay Is Winning Against COVID-19.”
The miracle did not last. A few months later, cases are increasing by the hundreds every day and experts fear that it will not be long before Uruguay, which once felt prepared, finds that 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 it would be the responsibility of the population to comply with the confinement which, although recommended, was never compulsory. Measures were adopted by the government to encourage people to stay at home, such as closing schools, suspending shows, and limiting public transport. They proved successful in those crucial first months.
By Sept. 20, there had been just 1,917 cases of the disease detected in Uruguay, and only 40 people had died. The number of deaths has now doubled, reaching 98 on Dec. 16, and active cases in the country are up to around 3,500.
Natalia Venturini, a psychologist from the military school of the Ministry of National Defense told The Daily Beast that the population had not necessarily been obedient, but that terrifying images of the pandemic hitting Europe had initially scared Uruguayans into sheltering. “Although confinement was not mandatory, companies chose to close and people stayed inside their homes… I think all this was 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 worked in preventing the spread of the virus.
Emilia Margor, who lives in the capital Montevideo, was one of those who stopped socializing and took the measures extremely seriously. “In the beginning of all this, I would say that from March to July, the care was quite extreme,” she said.
But things changed very quickly. Given the relative success of its actions, the government got over-confident. It started to set out a vision called “the new normality”—it was a gradual process but 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 Uruguay’s government on its pandemic response, admitted to The Daily Beast that the path ahead was not clear in the tiny Latin American nation. “At this time there is a lot of uncertainty and expectation about whether the measures taken are sufficient,” he said.
Bernardi—a psychiatric specialist who is part of the Honorary Scientific Advisory Group—said people had begun to lose patience with the restrictions. “The population's attention diminished over time because fear decreased and people began to have some fatigue and need for 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 get on with their lives.
In Montevideo alone, over one weekend in November, 195 clandestine parties were broken up by police. Many of the outbreaks across different regions of the country, can be linked back to young people partying.
Alfonsina Devicenti, an 18-year-old student from the Colonia department, said people her age were now back to their old ways and there were parties happening all the time. There was a huge recent one in Los Fogones, a meeting place in the city, where young people openly ignore the guidelines. “Many teenagers here spend a lot of time outside with other teenagers in very large groups,” she said.
Dr. Néstor Campos, former president of the Uruguayan Medical Association, told The Daily Beast that the government’s messaging campaign had failed among younger citizens.
“So much emphasis has been placed on the fact that COVID does not cause serious effects [among the younger age groups], that young people are losing respect for it,” he said. “We must continue to communicate and engage more with young people, and also take rigid measures even if they are unpopular."
Venturini, the psychologist from the Ministry of Defense school, admitted that the population followed the government’s lead and began to relax too soon. “The fact that the government has never decreed mandatory confinement undoubtedly affects the fact that we have ‘relaxed’ and abandoned the voluntary quarantine that we did,” she said. “Perhaps with a stricter regulatory framework, as in other countries, the situation would have been different.”
This sudden increase in cases, which continues to rise, is worrying health-care experts and threatening to overwhelm hospitals in some areas, but it also has an important economic impact. Tourism is huge for Uruguay with more than 3 million visitors every year, equivalent to its entire population. With the borders closed, many businesses had hoped that domestic tourism would make up some of the shortfall this coming summer, but the spike in COVID-19 cases has dashed those hopes.
Not everyone is panicking yet, Dr. Jorge Mota, the former departmental director of the Ministry of Health in the department of Colonia, told The Daily Beast that rates were still relatively low on a global scale. “I think something like this was to be expected, because since the virus has community circulation, it is logical that more and more people have contact with it,” he said.
For most experts, however, the situation is in danger of spiraling out of control.
As the pandemic edges upward, 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 soaring. But there’s a growing set of voices who say tougher measures would ease the situation.
For the moment, Uruguay is retracing its steps, imposing limits on the opening of restaurants and threatening to end “the new normality.” The question remains: Does the government still have the power to persuade the country to listen to its warnings?