What to do when you live next door to a country that’s ravaged by coronavirus? I’m physically closer than most to Brazil but I couldn’t feel further away in neighbouring Uruguay, a notable exception in South America when it comes to its management of the pandemic. Early tracing, a smaller population and favourable demographics are partly behind Uruguay’s success (it’s easier to socially distance in a capital city of 1.3 million residents, who benefit from a spacious 14 mile-long coastal promenade). People wear masks. Shops are open. Life has felt fairly normal.
When the first case was confirmed in March 2020, president Luis Lacalle Pou, the youngest Uruguayan head of state since the country’s return to democracy in 1985 and the first conservative to govern in more than a decade, declared a “voluntary quarantine”, asking the public to stay home if possible. There was never an official lockdown or forced business closures, though industry furloughs and the closing of schools and borders were introduced as preventive measures. Uruguay has also consistently topped the testing league tables, tracking more suspected cases per capita than any other country in South America. I can get one at my local petrol station. Case numbers remained low (about 100 daily through to November). At one point in August, the only cinema open across the entire continent was in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital.
But that nice-looking data chart is slowly shifting upwards. A more contagious Brazilian variant has meant that this March, Uruguay recorded more than 1,000 daily cases and hospital admissions are making headlines, prompting widespread criticism that a border closure with Brazil wasn’t tight enough. In fact, the duty-free shops that line the land frontier with the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul have been open for months and trade between the two never stopped. One thing lifting the Easter mood as many stay home voluntarily is vaccines. I popped my details into an app on Monday. This weekend, I and the other under 40s will begin joining the 500,000 Uruguayans inoculated since 1 March.
Lucinda Elliott is Monocle’s Latin America Affairs correspondent and a regular contributor to Monocle 24