A Look at How South America Is Handling COVID-19

At this moment, a cruise ship up from Antarctica, the Greg Mortimer, is stuck off the coast of Uruguay with a bunch of Australians who really want to get back home.  Uruguay's March 13 emergency decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is not the strictest in South America in terms of rules for distancing and mandatory quarantines (which are applied only for those who test positive), but the decree includes a prohibition that anyone disembark from any cruise or commercial ship arriving from a "high-risk" area.  Now, why a ship coming up from Antarctica would be considered high-risk seems like a reach, but we have to note that the ship was scheduled to visit the Patagonian port of Ushuaia on March 20, this after its visit to the South Shetland, South Georgia, and Falkland Islands.  At that time, there were three reported cases of the coronavirus in Ushuaia but evidently none in the Falklands (only penguins and seals on Georgia and Shetland) — hardly a high-risk zone, but evidently, the Uruguayan authorities are taking no chances.

Even more concerning to Uruguayan authorities are their own citizens returning from truly high-risk areas and not heeding the instructions to self-quarantine for two weeks before mixing with others.  An Uruguayan socialite and fashion designer flew home to Montevideo on March 7 and was instructed to shelter for two weeks because she had just visited the hard-hit country of Spain.  She actually developed symptoms of the virus the next day, but the airport instructions were evidently not weighing heavily on her conscience after disembarking, because the same day, she arrived she had lunch with her 84-year-old mother and then attended a high-society wedding where, out of the 500 guests, 44 came down with her "Spanish" flu.  The poor soul, a kind of modern Typhoid Mary, now complains that some are calling her a terrorist for importing death and destruction.

Because of this one "import," Uruguay now has a much higher relative number of coronavirus cases than does either Argentina to the south or Brazil to the north.  Argentina's cases are presently at 1,133 with 32 deaths; Brazil has 6,931 with 244 deaths; and Uruguay has 350 cases with 2 deaths, one of those a previous government minister.  If Uruguay had the same percentage of cases as Argentina right now, its number of infected would be only 87.  Uruguay has a similar increasing trend in cases, as do both of its larger neighbors, but the wedding guest kick-off gave the Uruguayans a jump-start toward Armageddon.  To be fair, Uruguay, with its population of 3,470,850, has about the same number of cases as Sacramento, California, where the population of 508,529 is only 15% of Uruguay's.

Uruguay has a modern and quite efficient health care system — it's misleading to think "Third World" about Uruguay or even most of Argentina.  Uruguay is the most educated country on our side of the ocean; yes, it has a higher literacy rate than the USA, and Uruguayans will quickly remind you of that distinction.  We lived there for 22 years, and many have characterized this small nation as an island of Europe right in the heart of South America.  The links to Europe are many.  Almost all Uruguayans have European roots: Spaniards, Italians, British, German, and more.  When we arrived in Uruguay in the early 1990s, most of the middle-class folk about our age spoke very good French; the ideal university education was often finished off with a year or more in France.  French has since been replaced by English as the preferred foreign language, especially for the younger set.  But in many ways, Uruguay's culture could almost be called Francophone, except that the national language is Spanish.

While Argentina to the south has closed more businesses and decreed a lockdown for a good portion of the population (after which, like in Florida, thousands headed for the beaches to take advantage of the last summer-like weather), and Brazil to the north has taken a much more lackadaisical approach (at least from the president), Uruguay has tried to chart a more middle-of-the-stream course through this pandemic.

The new centrist government of Luis Lacalle has decided on a set of measures that would be considered adequate farther north: classes suspended, public gatherings and church services prohibited, parties not allowed.  But he has not taken the more drastic step of ordering the population to stay home.  Rather, people are "advised" to stay indoors and avoid close contact if they have to go out, and those over the age of 65 are encouraged not to go to work.  A special "sick leave" subsidy was created for this at-risk working population.

With its educated population and a strong sense of civic responsibility, Uruguay will weather this crisis as well as or better than most other nations in the region.  We have been in communication with several in Montevideo these days, and while this is not a scientific sampling, they inform us that there is very little panic.  Most are going about their lives taking proper caution, and they hope, like everyone everywhere, that that curve will flatten soon.  Being a small country (about 100,000 less population than the city of Berlin) makes it easier to organize the public health services as well as the general population for getting such a crisis under control (think Hong Kong or Singapore).  But Uruguay does have the challenge that half of its people live in the "interior" in small cities, towns, and rural settings.  As in North America, this hinterland is not as hard hit as the cosmopolitan capital city, but even there, the health system of clinics, hospitals, and health care professionals is accessible to all but the most remote inhabitants.

One question that faces Uruguay, which is coming out of the Southern Hemisphere's summer season, is what will happen with the cooler weather and the coming flu season.  While up north we all wait expectantly for COVID-19 to hopefully lose some of its "virulency" with the coming warm weather, down south, they are bracing themselves for a particularly rough ride as winter approaches with no vaccines in sight at this early date.  And yes, Uruguay does get cold — we welcomed short-term youth service teams from California to Uruguay over a 10-year stretch, and they always came during the northern summer vacation months, and there was no way we could warn these kids that Uruguay would actually get cold in the winter.  They would show up in shorts and sandals and just about die when they got off the plane.  We tried to tell them that Montevideo in the winter is just about like San Francisco in January; cold, rainy, and windy.  But this was South America, and wasn't all of South America a tropical paradise?

One Latin American country, Nicaragua, which should be a tropical paradise, has taken the most curious laissez-faire attitude toward the pandemic.  Schools remain open, Easter celebrations are all still in place, no orders to shelter in place.  We might add somewhat positively that an army of "brigadistas" was sent out to inform the population of preventative measures they can take.  And most importantly, the government of Nicaragua organized for March 14 parades across the country against the virus; the theme of the rallies was "Love Walk in the Times of COVID-19," apparently a reference to Gabriel García Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera.  Against that backdrop of another Spanish-speaking nation's "efforts," it appears that Uruguay has been exceedingly intelligent in its battle to keep this virus under control.