The rise in infections was unsurprising, not just because of Uruguay’s dangerous neighbors, but also because those numbers had nowhere to go but up. Indeed, until recently Uruguay has appeared an outlier in its response to the virus. In September, Luke Taylor pointed to a fast reaction, thorough testing, and a good plan as the main reasons that the Uruguayans were able to keep numbers low while its neighbors’ infections soared. Taylor even went so far as to declare that “Uruguay has a lid on the pandemic” (Taylor 1). A January article in Scientific American profiled Gonzalo Moratorio, a virologist in Montevideo, and credited him with an important role in helping the country largely avoid what others have suffered. In their words, Moratorio “helped Uruguay dodge the worst consequences of the pandemic” (Rodríguez Mega). Indeed, Nature magazine named Moratorio one of the “ten people who helped shape science in 2020” (“Nature’s 10”). It seems that even while numbers might be rising now, it is also possible to point to Uruguay as a pandemic-response success.
Covid is not the first time Uruguay has been characterized as a small country bucking a trend. In fact, Uruguay has been punching above its perceived weight in many areas for a long time. The country made waves by creating internal and external policies that altered traditional relationships with loans, debt, and international relations. One reporter praised these moves by comparing Uruguay to a European counterpart: “For the past 10 years, Uruguayans have been conducting a left-leaning experiment in economic and social democracy, turning themselves into a Latin American version of Switzerland in the process” (Meurer). This progress was criticized by some countries, particularly the UK government and its banking industry, where fault was found in the large Uruguayan investments in the public sector. Nevertheless, Uruguay confirmed its faith in these polices through elections and, as the same article argued, putting people before investors might anger the investors, but it made Uruguayans happy: “From the bankers’ perspective, Uruguay is setting a bad example by taking care of their people instead of catering to global financial speculators” (Meurer). International financial politics is not always the most headline grabbing subject, but the popularity of these decisions clearly shows that they have positively impacted the lives of Uruguayan citizens.
Uruguay’s capacity to punch above its weight exists in many sectors but is perhaps best known through soccer. The country won the inaugural World Cup in 1930 in their capital city. Then, they repeated victory in Brazil in 1950 when Uruguay upset the hosts in front an enormous crowd. The same people-focused tendencies that informs today’s banking contributed to these successes. Indeed, the Uruguayan team has long been more racially inclusive than its neighbors and some of their best players would likely have been excluded in other countries: “That early success was thanks in part to enlightened social inclusion policies. While South American neighbours were restricting soccer to a European descendant elite, Uruguay’s star was José Andrade, the son of an African-born slave” (Cawthorne). This general philosophy that has brought soccer success and made banking waves has run through multiple aspects of the country’s daily life: legalization of drugs, accepting prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay, universal healthcare, and free childcare. Many of these policies were criticized from around the globe, but Uruguay has persisted and found successes in the process.
In a world where it usually feels that the strongest, the richest, or the most aggressive is the one who wins; the one that enjoys the benefits, Uruguay’s story is heartening. The pandemic has left upside-down and backwards many of the things that we have long taken to be true. Borders, cultures, and languages that we usually see as forces that separate us have been shown to be little more than social constructions that are insignificant when compared to the common human thread that makes us vulnerable to the virus. Yet that same thing that makes us vulnerable -humanity- is exactly what seems to have been at the base of Uruguay’s achievements. When asked to describe how they find success, one Uruguayan soccer player pointed to an important factor that seems to go far beyond the pitch: “We give our lives for every ball,’ said midfielder Lucas Torreira. ‘This country is very small but it has a huge heart.” (Cawthorne). This response was cliché, no doubt, but applying it to the larger idea of what Uruguay has recently done is interesting. Maybe the pandemic is a chance for other governments to put some more heart -some human focus- in their decisions. If a small country like Uruguay can do it, why can’t others?
Cawthorne, Andrew. “Little Uruguay Punch above Weight - yet Again.” Reuters, 4 July 2018. www.reuters.com, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-soccer-worldcup-ury-por-idUKKBN1JU0P2.
“Covid-19: Health Situation in Uruguay Worsens amid Successful Vaccination Campaign.” MercoPress, https://en.mercopress.com/2021/03/22/covid-19-health-situation-in-uruguay-worsens-amid-successful-vaccination-campaign. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.
Meurer, Michael. “Uruguay Punches above Its Weight.” Latin America Bureau, 3 Jan. 2015, https://lab.org.uk/uruguay-punches-above-its-weight/.
“Nature’s 10: Ten People Who Helped Shape Science in 2020.” Nature, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03435-6. Accessed 2 Apr. 2021.
Rodríguez Mega, Emiliano. “A Virologist Helps Keep Uruguay Safe from COVID with a Homegrown Test.” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-virologist-helps-keep-uruguay-safe-from-covid-with-a-homegrown-test/. Accessed 28 Mar. 2021.
Taylor, Luke. “Uruguay Is Winning against Covid-19. This Is How.” BMJ, vol. 370, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, Sept. 2020, p. m3575. www.bmj.com, doi:10.1136/bmj.m3575.