By Nicolás Zerbino, MPP’20, Former researcher at the Universidad de Montevideo focused on Education and Economic Development.
A country often overlooked unless the topic of discussion is football, Uruguay sits somewhat snugly between the two South American giants: Brazil and Argentina. On one side, Argentina is being hailed as an example on confronting the COVID-19 pandemic in international news outlets, and on the other, Brazil is in chaos with President Bolsonaro refusing to acknowledge the severity of the current crisis. As social distancing and stay-at-home orders reach their first few months of implementation (or first month depending on where one lives), the debate between maintaining current measures or opening the economy intensifies in countries around the world. The situation in Uruguay is no different.
Uruguay has many things going for it in terms of the available tools to fight the pandemic. Investments in the public health system account for 9.5% of the GDP. This is above the WHO’s benchmark of 6% and very high relative to most Latin American nations. Additionally, on March 17, a coalition of researchers from the Universidad de la República, Uruguay’s national public university, and the Institut Pasteur de Montevideo developed a testing kit to detect COVID-19 that gives the country some autonomy from global supply chains during the crisis.
The new government has announced a policy package aimed at mitigating the economic impact of the nationwide economic shutdown. A coronavirus fund has been created with the goal of funding a variety of social programs aimed at helping families and businesses during the crisis. These measures include building new shelters for the homeless and expanding social program transfers. The budget for Plan de Equidad (equity plan), a national social program that transfers money to the neediest families, has increased. Also, a call line was opened for informal workers to sign up for a social program that gives them access to nutritional security. An application has been deployed by the government to help inform and guide individuals who suspect they are infected with the novel coronavirus.
Following the same line, the central bank has developed a program to help small businesses stay afloat. The measure expands the credit available to small businesses by not requiring guarantees for up to 80% of the value of new loans. However, not everything is running smoothly in this sector. Recent critics, including the Economic Minister, Azucena Arbeleche, have criticized Uruguay’s private banking systems for taking too much time in making these loans available to businesses that need them.
Within the public health leadership, the situation is in turmoil. Disagreements between the Minister of Public Health, Daniel Salinas, and the Director of the Public Health Laboratory Department (PHLD) Verónica Seija resulted in her controversial dismissal. The PHLD is responsible for confirming coronavirus cases and her exit created widespread rage among Uruguay’s medical community. Multiple public health leaders have also left their positions in protest, including the heads of Epidemiology, Public Health Monitoring, among others. This leadership crisis among public health officials could not have come at a more difficult time.
With the coronavirus crisis unfolding, Uruguay’s new government has faced significant criticism for trying to push a “law for urgent consideration” through the legislature. The law project touches on a wide range of topics including security, the workforce, education, and the economy. It has faced a backlash from across the political aisle and international organizations, such as Defense for Children International, due to certain articles, such as one that increases sentencing for underage offenders.
As this leadership crisis unfolds and the CEPAL announces the largest economic contraction in Latin American history, social distancing measures are slowly being lifted. Rural schools in Uruguay’s interior are set to reopen soon and the construction sector is restarting its activities. Many questions remain about the consequences of relaxing restrictions on the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic in Uruguay and around the world.