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LATIN AMERICA | 09-04-2021 15:25

Uruguay, once Covid haven, suffers record infections and deaths

Uruguay is grappling with one of the world’s highest Covid infection rates, with scores killed weekly, schools shut and a confused and weary population searching for answers.

For most of last year, Uruguay was a pandemic oasis. As rich Argentines crossed the border to take up residency in the tiny, well-run nation, it reopened schools and offices, and tried not to gloat. The total death count stayed in the dozens.

Today, Uruguay is grappling with one of the world’s highest Covid infection rates, with scores killed weekly, schools shut and a confused and weary population searching for answers.

“People are dying who shouldn’t have died,” lamented Raúl Correa, who led a protest of school bus owners outside President Luis Lacalle Pou’s office this week. He blames the flouting of prevention measures and the government’s reluctance to further reduce mobility.

Whatever the reason – and the shifting shape of the pandemic on every continent suggests humility is an analytical requirement – Gonzalo Moratorio, a top Uruguayan virologist, blames complacency, a 663-mile (1067-kilometre) border with Brazil and the government’s decision to prioritise the economy.

“We declared victory too soon, the victims of our own success,” said Moratorio, of the Institut Pasteur de Montevideo, who was featured in the journal Nature as the “Coronavirus hunter,” part of its list of top 10 shapers of science.

Wedged between Argentina and Brazil, where Covid is killing thousands daily, Uruguay, with just 3.5 million people, felt safe until October when cases began to creep up. After a brief summer lull, the current surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals that have 47 percent of their intensive care beds occupied by Covid victims.

Uruguay now ranks number one in the world by one measure of infections with 6,071 new cases per one million people in the last week, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. About 86 percent of the 1,275 Covid fatalities reported since the start are from this year with a spate of nursing home deaths in recent weeks, including more than 20 in one home alone. The proliferation of the more infectious P1 strain from Brazil isn’t helping.

President Lacalle Pou this week extended measures through the end of April when the government’s vaccine programme might begin to show the first results. A fervent believer in personal freedom – the first conservative to hold the office in 15 years – he said he wouldn’t turn his country into a “a police state” by declaring a hard lockdown.

“From my point of view, the measures are enough if they are observed,” said Lacalle Pou, 47, while acknowledging that compliance falls short.

So far, a deepening health crisis, poverty at an eight-year high, and a 5.9 percent plunge in the economy last year haven’t dented his support. His approval rating rose four percentage points to 58 percent in a March survey by pollster Equipos Consultores, though its down from 65 percent at the start of his five-year term in March 2020.

“The current situation is interpreted as a global, international issue we have to live with and that isn’t the government’s fault,” Felipe Arocena, a sociologist at the University of the Republic, said in an interview.

Antonio Garabato, 87, who’s still working part-time at the barber shop he founded more than half a century ago, typifies that view even after customer traffic plunged almost 50 percent in the last three weeks. “The government is doing what it can,” he said about the growing crisis. “It’s not easy for the government or the people.”

Garabato is among the 27 percent of Uruguayans who have received at least one shot since the government started vaccinating March 1. With the vaccine program still months away from lowering infections, medical and scientific organizations have urged the government to restrict circulation to prevent people from spreading the virus.

Arocena, the sociologist, expects the public mood to darken as the situation worsens. The past week has seen daily records of cases in the thousands and deaths in the dozens, although Uruguay’s toll remains far below those of its neighbors. “I have no doubt that social conflict will increase,” he said.

As a Southern Hemisphere nation, Uruguay is just entering its autumn and opened a new school year in March only to shutter classrooms weeks later.

Architect Maja Almada and her partner are back to juggling work from home with their fourth-grade daughter’s online learning schedule. Almada and her family recently finished two weeks of quarantine after a brush with a Covid case and say they are beginning to realize they are facing an extended crisis.

“I’m preparing for this to go on longer than I thought,” she said.

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by Ken Parks, Bloomberg

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