In Depth

Testing and trust: how Uruguay bucked South American trends to beat Covid

The small nation’s decisive response stands in stark contrast to those of neighbouring countries

Latin America has become a front line in the global battle against coronavirus, yet one of the region’s countries has defied the odds to claim near victory over Covid-19.

Described by The Guardian as “a progressive enclave with the lowest poverty index in Latin America”, Uruguay has reported just 1,218 infections and 35 related deaths, according to latest figures.

As neighbouring nations struggle to contain coronavirus outbreaks, how has Uruguay managed to buck the trend?

Swift, decisive action

Unlike Brazil, whose President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the danger posed by Covid, “Uruguay moved swiftly in March to enact social distancing, testing and community tracing”, writes Jennifer Pribble, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond, in an article on The Conversation.

Uruguay’s President Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou have never ordered a total lockdown, instead declaring a “voluntary quarantine” under which members of the public were asked to isolate if possible.

But “Uruguayans can point to their long history of progressive social policies – including extensive public health coverage and almost 100% access to running water – as a key factor in containing the virus”, says The Guardian.

By late June, that public health coverage had seen Uruguay outstrip richer nations to achieve the fourth-highest number of tests conducted per new confirmed case, at 1,610, compared with 52 in the US and 21 in the UK.

“The key to our success has been a quick response detecting and isolating cases,” said Rafael Radi, one of the government’s chief Covid-19 advisers. 

Uruguay also employed teams to test “random city blocks and critical job sectors such as construction workers”, The Guardian reports.

This meant that the government could build a picture of where the virus was likely to spring up next, with this data used alongside “a contact-tracing app from which home visits and tests can be requested”, the New Scientist reports.

The government was not afraid to ask for help either, reaching out to the World Health Organization “for lessons learned elsewhere” and “best practice on testing”, according to Giovanni Escalante, WHO’s representative to Uruguay.

In addition, Uruguay increased its “number of testing laboratories from one to 25 and sent scientists to Brazil for training”, New Scientist adds. This later allowed the country “to bypass international supply bottlenecks for testing equipment”, says the Financial Times.

Trust in the system

As well as deploying a rapid testing response, Uruguay had a secret weapon in its coronavirus response: trust in the government.

Unlike Brazil, where corruption and authoritarianism have undermined faith in the central government, “Uruguayans generally like their political system”, writes Pribble on The Conversation. 

In 2018-19, 76.2% of Uruguayans voiced support for democracy - the highest rate of any country in the region, according to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Political Opinion Project

“You cannot impose what you cannot control. We appealed to social responsibility, and this was respected on a mass scale,” says Uruguay’s Health Hinister Daniel Salinas. 

Or as Montevideo-based political scientist Adolfo Garce puts it, Uruguayans’ trust in the system meant they “were treated like adults, and… reacted accordingly”.

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