Uruguay sees ‘first wave’ threatening long-protected Covid gains

Nine months after recording its first coronavirus case, Uruguay is seeing an outbreak in what President Luis Lacalle Pou has called the “first wave,” threatening to undo the hard-fought gains throughout the pandemic.

The government is taking a heavier-handed approach to beat back infections including tighter border restrictions and a bill sent to Congress seeking fasttrack approval to breakup gatherings deemed a threat to public health.

To be sure, Uruguay still boasts the lowest infection and mortality rates on the continent thanks to the initial success of a strategy that relied on voluntary prevention measures that Lacalle Pou dubbed “the responsible exercise of liberty.” Now infections are soaring with a record 547 new cases reported last week as pandemic-weary Uruguayans welcome summer with parties and big family gatherings.

“The world’s second wave is our first wave,” Lacalle Pou said this week. “Responsible liberty had its moment. Today, we appeal to coexistence with solidarity.”

Uruguay has slipped to orange alert level from yellow amid exponential growth in daily cases since November, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Even though the government has boosted testing and more than doubled its tracing staff, its been unable to find the source of infection in 30 percent of cases and the virus is circulating on a community level in the capital Montevideo.

The group of scientists advising the government warns that daily cases could rise to 1,200 by the end of the year, from less than 100 a day at the start of November, unless Uruguayans avoid high risk behavior and steps are taken to curb the movement of people.

Total cases reported during the pandemic in the tiny country of 3.5 million people nestled in between Argentina and Brazil stand at just 11,436. Only 105 people have died from the respiratory illness.

“We still haven’t definitively lost control of the pandemic. Regaining control depends on all of society,” Rafael Radi, who heads the advisory group, said hours before the president announced new restrictions Wednesday.

Lacalle Pou has ruled out a lockdown to avoid causing even more harm to an economy that is expected to shrink 4.3 percent this year.

The tourist industry, which contributed seven percent of gross domestic product last year and depends heavily on Argentine visitors, is already bracing for one of the worst Southern Hemisphere summer seasons on record. International borders will remain shut to inbound travel in coming months.

Lacalle Pou urged Uruguayans to help themselves, and the economy, by taking a vacation this summer.

“He who has the opportunity to go to the hills, the beach and the river should do so,” said Lacalle Pou. The president, a surfer, said he hopes to spend a couple of days on the Atlantic coast.

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by Ken Parks, Bloomberg

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