Fight against coronavirus in Uruguay: “Warning bells start ringing” – Interview with journalist Juan José Pereyra

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Despite sharing a border with Brazil which is the third-worst-hit country by the coronavirus pandemic, Uruguay has been fighting effectively against the spread of novel coronavirus. Özge Çakır Somlyai’s guest was journalist Juan José Pereyra from Uruguay. He talked about what might be behind Uruguay’s success story and what the current situation in the country is.

Özge Çakır Somlyai: Hello Juan! 

Juan José Pereyra: Hello Özge! I am so glad to talk to you. 

Ö: Thank you so much for being here and joining this interview. I would like to go back to March, it was the 13th of March when the first coronavirus case was seen in Uruguay. Uruguay seemed to be prepared in advance. What kind of steps were taken before the coronavirus entered the country? And after the 13th of March, what were the immediate steps taken by the government?

“In Uruguay, there was no lockdown or quarantine”

J: Well, the question is complex. I will try to make myself clear. Let’s see! Uruguay did not take any special action before the 13th of March. It did not. I will also explain why things are going so well so far (in Uruguay). On the 1st of March, we had a new government with a new (and different) political view than the other (previous) one. Our previous government did not take any action. No action at all, and neither the new one (when they first came to power). Our government thought that COVID-19 was too far away to come in here. But when it happened, when the first four cases were detected, our president (Luis) Lacalle Pou talked to the people, there were four cases and some decisions were made. 

There were some things that made the way Uruguay fought against coronavirus special. First of all, Uruguay did not have a lockdown. Unlike many other countries, (in Uruguay) there was no obligation to stay under quarantine. For instance, our neighbor Argentina forced people to stay under quarantine with law enforcement, and those who did not obey the rules were fined or punished. What Uruguay did was to ask people to stay at home, to ask people to behave responsibly, and decided not to oblige people (by law) to stay at home. The frontiers were closed at once. At first, with Brazil and Argentina, and then all the international flights were canceled. Classes were suspended from primary schools to universities. Big shopping malls were closed. 

The government only called people to behave responsibly and it worked. For a long time, people stayed at home. They understood that it was best for them. Uruguay also has an important and long history of democracy. People were aware that taking care and listening to the government is important, and it worked. 

“Strong healthcare system and social policies helped Uruguay in its fight against coronavirus”

Recently, Uruguay started to open up day by day, one step at a time. I told you that Uruguay did not take any preemptive actions to avoid the pandemic. But I have to say that the country was ready (to face such a pandemic) and to have a better situation than many other countries. First of all, Uruguay has a good, strong health care system. For many years, in Uruguay, public and private health institutions work together and coordinated. Also, Uruguay has strong social policies to help people in need. It has been this way for so many years. Therefore, during the pandemic, Uruguay was able to easily reach out to those in need. 

As was the case in many countries, here also many people lost their jobs and their income. Casual workers who made enough money to survive until the next day suffered so much. We can say that the hand of the state was there to help them. The government introduced special programs to help them with the loss of income. The government decided that for three months, those who had a monthly income of about 2 thousand dollars or more should pay 20 percent of their income as a newly introduced tax to be put into the country’s coronavirus fund. This also helped with easing the damage done to Uruguay’s economy by the pandemic. Some people (who lost their jobs) could stay at home thanks to the assistance provided by the government. These were small amounts, not enough but it helped some people to stay at home.

“When classes were suspended in Uruguay, learning was not suspended”

About students and classes, for many years, Uruguay has a very good internet connection. It is actually one of the best in all countries. Serious investments were made for this purpose. Another thing is that it was in Uruguay’s political agenda for so many years to provide all school kids with their own computers. Uruguay has been carrying out a “one computer per child” policy for students from primary schools to universities. So, when classes were suspended, learning was not suspended. Students and teachers studied and worked from home for months. 

As numbers seemed fine for Uruguay, life started to get back to “normal”. First, students went back to school buildings. Not in the cities, but in small areas, villages far from the city where the internet connection is still problematic, students started going to the school buildings to learn. There are new rules to take care such as the use of face masks and hand sanitizers. Thousands of children and teachers went back to schools, but there is no coronavirus case detected in the schools until now. 

“Social life in Uruguay starts again under the rules of the new normal”

Construction workers went back to work as well. They were given paid vacation. In recent months, they started going back to work. This caused some anxiety at first because people thought that this was dangerous. So far, there is no serious problem. We are now in the phase of reopening restaurants, cafes, theater buildings, etc. All of them are being reopened under the rules of “new normal” which means fewer people will be allowed to go in. If it is a theater building with a capacity of 1000 people, for instance, there will be 500 or maybe even 200 people inside. This is good news for artists, musicians, for people who are working in restaurants. Little by little, things are getting back to normal. 

Ö: But let me ask you that reopening of these places started earlier right? Towards the beginning of summer? Or are we talking about nowadays? When did they start reopening the theaters and restaurants for instance? 

J: These places started to be reopened two weeks ago.

Ö: So recent.

J: Very recently started, yes. There was a growing demand from all those people who work in these fields, whose lives are dependent on these places. It was also necessary for the whole population. People were sick of sitting at home every day. Until now, this seems to be working fine as well. 

There are still many workers, who have problems and trying to survive. Uruguay has been managing the pandemic well until now. Especially if we compare with Brazil and Argentina, there are fewer cases here. Since March, 45 people died because of the virus. Yesterday, 172 tests were done. The total number of tests done since March is nearly 200 thousand. Remember the fact that Uruguay has a population of 3.5 million.

“There are warning signs, the situation in Uruguay can change dramatically”

Until now, Uruguay has been doing well. But, as I told you before, warning bells start ringing for Uruguay. There are warning signs showing that this can change any time, and it can change dramatically. Why? We share borders with Brazil. We have several cities located on the borderline with Brazil. There are some cities whose half of it is Brazil, another half in Uruguay. So, the high number of cases in Brazil is very dangerous for Uruguay as well. The situation in those cities can easily get out of control. 

Another problem is that the people in Uruguay started to relax. Uruguay has a special occasion called the “Nostalgia Night” and once a year, people get together, they go out to dance and listen to songs from the 70s, 80s or 90s. This is a very important cultural event for us. This year, the government asked people not to go to crowded places, not to meet in crowded groups. Well, most of the people did not go, but there were many people who did go. This was on the 24th of August. Two weeks later, the case number went up dramatically. 

A few days ago, in a small town in the rural area, some people had a party. There were five cases after that and the cases spread to other small towns. For now, in Uruguay, the biggest problem is that people started to relax too much and they stopped maintaining the measures taken, stopped taking care. Everybody wants to get together with their friends and families, but we now hear about people who hug and even kiss each other. 

The best scientists in the country are working together with the government to take the situation under control in Uruguay. They do not get paid, they volunteered for this. Please, people! Do not relax. Do not think like “Oh nothing will happen to me.” I repeat. our government is working well. But the problem can get bigger if the whole of society does not take the problem seriously. 

Ö: Thank you so much for joining me for this interview. And thank you all for watching us! Stay tuned for more content from Medyascope! 

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