Once praised for its Covid response, Uruguay now facing severe health crisis

By Federico Anfitti

Montevideo, Apr 14 (EFE).- The coronavirus situation in Uruguay has now reached alarming levels.

Formerly held up as an example of how to manage the pandemic, that small South American country now is seeing its health care system under severe strain as the number of confirmed cases steadily grows and the Covid-19 death toll is projected to climb to more than 1,200 in April.

Yet even as the medical emergency has worsened, the government has continued to avoid taking stringent measures to reduce people’s mobility.

The pandemic began later there than in other countries, while the relatively low level of cases and deaths caused Uruguay to be seen as a rare bright spot globally.

But it now is suffering the fifth-highest number of daily deaths worldwide per 1 million inhabitants, according to the University of Oxford’s “Our World in Data” website.

It also has ranked first globally for several days in terms of new cases per 1 million inhabitants. There have been 149,430 confirmed cases in Uruguay since the start of the pandemic (31,302 of them active) and 1,592 deaths attributed to Covid-19, far more than the 19,399 cases (5,750 active cases) and 181 deaths through Dec. 31, 2020.

Even so, center-right Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou continues to preach the message of “responsible freedom,” while also taking lukewarm measures such as suspending in-person schooling until May 3 and closing gyms and duty-free stores on the Uruguay-Brazil border.

“Something that’s clear is that the measures that have been taken very clearly have not had the expected result,” Nibia Reisch, a lawmaker with the center-right Colorado Party, a member of the ruling Multicolor Coalition, told Efe.

She said the solution is to emulate the steps that were taken at different times in much of the rest of the world and only allow essential business establishments, such as supermarkets, to remain open.

Harsher criticism was leveled by the opposition center-left Broad Front party, with Sen. Daniel Olesker telling Efe that the current situation is “dramatic and critical” and has only worsened since the mild restrictions went into effect (initially through April 12 but later extended to the end of the month).

“The decision to not take (strict coronavirus) measures is due to the fact that … this government has decided that fiscal (concerns) take priority over health (concerns),” the opposition lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, a lack of drugs, concerns about the availability of oxygen tanks, an intensive care bed occupancy rate of 77 percent and a high degree of stress, fatigue and burnout among health care personnel are among the concerns of those struggling on the front lines to save lives.

Yet despite the sharp rise in cases and deaths, Uruguay’s vaccination program could provide a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Since March 1, when Uruguay began its vaccine rollout, 918,118 people have received an initial dose of the Pfizer or CoronaVac vaccine (roughly 26 percent of the population) and 213,773 have received the full two-dose series.

In that regard, virologist Juan Cristina told Efe that achieving a “herd effect” by getting 70 percent of the population vaccinated must be the top priority. EFE


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