Same morbid fate despite different Covid approaches in Uruguay, Argentina

·3-min read

Uruguay adopted a hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic while Argentina applied strict lockdowns but the fate of the South American neighbors was the same: They now have some of the world's highest Covid-19 death rates.

Fifteen months after the virus first appeared on the continent much of South America is experiencing its worst moment yet, despite some countries making great headway in their vaccination programs.

Uruguay tops the list of the globe's worst death rates, followed by Paraguay, with Argentina coming in third.

Over the last two weeks Uruguay recorded 21.62 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Argentina notched 14.73. And three other South American countries fill out the top six: Colombia, Brazil and Peru.

As a reference, the United States' figure is 2.46 deaths per 100,000.

But the question is how two countries with polar opposite approaches to the pandemic could deliver such startlingly similar and macabre results.

An answer can at least partially be found in people's attitudes and behavior.

For much of 2020, Uruguay was lauded as a model for managing the pandemic without ever resorting to a lockdown, resulting in a low perception of risk and lax behavior.

And despite strict lockdowns in Argentina, some bored people adopted erratic behavior, including going to social gatherings, as well as denial and rebellion, according to Elisa Estenssoro, a member of an expert panel advising President Alberto Fernandez.

- Uruguayans 'don't believe' -

People in Uruguay "don't believe" the virus is serious, Francisco Dominguez, who works in an intensive care unit, told AFP.

"Until they have a family member here inside, they don't believe."

Uruguay's indifference can be better understood considering the fact that half way through 2020, the country was down to fewer than 20 active cases and on many days recorded no new infections.

Now, the country is seeing "historic" levels of occupancy in intensive care units.

"Never in the history of the country's intensive medicine were there 600 beds occupied before the pandemic," Julio Pontet, president of Uruguay's Intensive Medicine Society, told AFP.

President Luis Lacalle Pou has prioritized "responsible freedom" in a bid to keep the economy functioning and has consistently resisted pressure from the health sector to impose a lockdown.

Shows and performances have been suspended since March and the borders remain closed but gyms were allowed to reopen while restaurants and shops are operating normally.

Even a hugely successful vaccination program with 29 percent of the population totally immunized and 47 percent having had at least one dose, has not slowed the rise in cases and deaths.

- Argentine boredom -

Last Saturday, Argentina began a nine-day lockdown after daily new infections rose to 30,000 and deaths to 500.

According to Estenssoro, irresponsible behavior, a tardy adoption of tougher restrictions, a lack of vaccines and new more aggressive virus strains are causing the country's latest wave.

"This terrible and unstoppable circulation of the virus is strengthened by people's behaviors that aren't coherent: social gatherings, people without masks... some people are following (restrictions) and others are in denial or rebelling," she said.

Boredom reigned as Fernandez acted decisively with lockdowns, curfews, strict quarantine rules and a shutdown of all but essential activities.

"I'm at the end of my tether, I had to see a psychiatrist because I can't stay shut inside," complained pensioner Nadia Mariella, 73, after receiving her vaccine in Buenos Aires.

Hospitals are suffering from a lack of beds and oxygen, while staff are exhausted.

"Yesterday we didn't have any beds. When one becomes free it's because of a death," said nurse Hector Ortiz from the Durand Hospital in Buenos Aires.

Yet on Tuesday, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against restrictions.

Argentina has suffered three years of recession and last year the economy shrank by 9.9 percent.

The vaccine rollout is slow with less than 20 percent of the 45 million population having received a first dose and just over five percent having had both.

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