By Fabian Werner and Marina Lammertyn
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) – Leonardo Silveira, a bookstore owner in Montevideo, hopes for the future when Uruguay starts a gradual reopening. The small country maintains COVID-19 levels at one of the lowest levels in Latin America, even when the region is the center of a coronavirus.
The South American country of 3.5 million people, known for their beef, relaxed lifestyles and cannabis, has recorded 789 confirmed cases of the new corona virus and 22 deaths. That’s about 23 cases per 100,000 people – versus nearly 200 cases per 100,000 in Brazil.
Uruguay moved quickly in March when the first case was detected. It introduces voluntary quarantine, extensive monitoring and tracking of infections, randomized testing, and the use of models to predict how the disease will develop in various parts of the country.
Without death since May 23, government adviser Rafael Radi described the situation last week as under “relative control.”
Now this facilitates an open economy, including stumbling over schools. Some call it New Zealand in Latin America, given the similar population size and number of deaths.
In May, customers began appearing in bookstores that hadn’t been there in a long time, Silveira said.
“People come not only to buy books but to see you and talk for a while. It’s nice to see them – from a distance but together here in the shop,” he said.
Apart from Brazil, neighboring countries such as Chile, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia have much higher infection rates than Uruguay.
Paraguay has kept cases at the same level but with tougher measures, including using the military to enforce its lock.
Adriana Garcia Da Rosa, 57, a pediatrician in Montevideo, said the success was good government planning, while influenza inoculation had helped maintain the pressure of health services from seasonal diseases.
“The Uruguayan population responds well and complies with government regulations, making it possible to control the pandemic effectively,” he said.
Giovanni Escalante, Uruguay’s representative at the Pan American Health Organization, said the country’s success was a rapid response, strong steps, and the formation of a crisis committee led by health experts and epidemiologists.
Only a few of the country’s about 650 beds of intensive care units are available for COVID-19 patients currently occupied, he said.
But there are still shadows. Uruguay shares the northern border with Brazil, which now has the second largest number of cases in the world.
The border town of Rivera has witnessed cases escalating and Uruguayan officials are worried that open borders remain a “weak spot,” adviser Radi government said.
The arrival of winter in the southern hemisphere is another matter.
Even so, many Uruguayans are cheering signs of returning to normal after their business has been hit.
Sebastian Barbat, who runs a convenience store in Montevideo, said his business had collapsed during the closure, but that it was now recovering.
“We see about half of the number of customers we had at the best time in the first half of March,” he said, adding the company was now looking to hire more people after cutting staff.
“We must reduce the workforce to a minimum, with only two employees remaining who are the owners. Now we will return.”
(Reporting by Fabian Werner, Alejandro Obaldía and Marina Lammertyn; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
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