As the novel coronavirus cyclones through Latin America, it has staggered almost every nation. So how to explain Uruguay? Its infection rate of 2.1 cases per million inhabitants is the second lowest in South America and already falling, with just 22 fatalities by May 27. Ahead of many of its neighbors, Uruguay is already glimpsing a safe return to economic normalcy.
It might not have turned out this way. The nation of 3.5 million people is rife with risks. It is the Latin American nation with the largest share of elderly, and all but 4% of the national population lives in cities. Those are the kind of demographics made for contagion. Uruguay is wedged between ailing giants: Brazil is the pandemic’s new epicenter, while Argentina was already nearing economic collapse when it defaulted on its debt last week.
And yet — stricken neighbors take note — Uruguay has not only contained the outbreak, it has done so without a lockdown, harsh quarantines or heavy-handed policing. Most schools and restaurants closed their doors, but shops and businesses were allowed to stay open. Unlike its outsize neighbors who mostly flew blind into the pandemic, Uruguay built its crisis response on proactive testing and tracing — it has the second highest testing rate in South America — and cajoling its citizenry to do the right thing, as in this national mask-wearing campaign.