The date wasn’t lost on Uruguayans.
After watching the novel coronavirus emerge in China and spread to Europe, the country confirmed its first four cases on Friday the 13th – an apparently ominous opening for a disease that would soon burn a wide path through Latin America.
But in the weeks and months that followed the March 13 diagnoses of four recent travelers from Europe, the nation of 3.4 million would keep the virus in check. Wedged between Brazil, suffering the second-worst outbreak in the world, and Argentina, where infections are now surging, Uruguay has reported just 1,064 cases and 33 deaths – unusually low numbers for a Latin American nation testing widely.
In June, it became the first country in the region to reopen virtually all public schools. It’s the only country in Latin America from which the European Union will accept visitors.
Officials and analysts credit stable and united leadership, a robust national health system and a voluntary but broad lockdown for the country’s relative success so far.
“People were asked to enjoy their freedom in a responsible way by staying at home,” said the renowned Montevideo gastroenterologist Henry Cohen, who serves on a committee of scientists advising the government through the pandemic.
Nearby Paraguay has enjoyed similar success against the coronavirus, reporting 3,748 cases and 33 deaths. Neighboring Brazil, in contrast, has reported more than 2 million cases and over 80,000 deaths – second in both only to the United States. Argentina, with less population density, has confirmed five times as many cases per capita as Paraguay, and eight times as many as Uruguay.
Guillermo Sequera, director of health surveillance in Paraguay’s Ministry of Public Health, says the common thread in countries that have been successful against the coronavirus is early, forceful action and an emphasis on gaining and maintaining the trust of the people.
Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou, inaugurated two weeks before the country confirmed its first cases, closed the borders, shut down schools and public spaces, and urged people to quarantine. Uruguayans 65 and older were required to quarantine.
The country’s leaders and public health officials had watched the pandemic develop in Asia and Europe and had time to prepare, Cohen said. Politicians set aside their differences and elevated scientists in the country’s response, which helped build public confidence.
“From March 13 until the end of April, the political class in Uruguay closed ranks,” said Daniel Chasquetti, a political scientist and professor at the Universidad de la República.
The country has begun to reopen, carefully. The border remains closed to virtually all foreigners. But the government has allowed bars, restaurants and hotels to resume operations, guided by careful testing.
“I notice in people a sense of tranquility and serenity, a sense of safety and trust,” said veteran television news anchor Blanca Rodríguez. “And people don’t want to lose that.”
A cluster of cases in the city of Rivera on the Brazilian border and a more recent one in the capital, Montevideo, has reminded Uruguayans to remain vigilant.
“As in soccer, the match is not over yet; we are still fighting,” Cohen said. “We are playing well – we can win this – but we can’t forget the precautions we need to take.”
In Paraguay, also beginning to reopen, Sequera warns of social distancing fatigue. The country has seen an outbreak in a jail in Ciudad del Este on the border with Brazil.
“Things are getting harder,” he said. “If we look at recent numbers, the numbers of cases are increasing. It is a steady growth, not an explosive one.”