Uruguay is a small country in South America bordering Brazil and Argentina. The country has a population of nearly 3.5 million people and has solved many poverty issues that still plague other South American countries. Uruguay’s life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality rates, literacy rate and health system capacity are all at or near the levels of those statistics in the United States and Western Europe. The country’s situation today as a high-income country is a direct result of its unique history. Through Uruguay’s economic standing and prepared response to the pandemic, the country was prepared to combat COVID-19.
Uruguay’s History and Financial Situation
Uruguay, despite being located in South America, is more comparable to countries in Europe and not without reason. In the pre-colonial era, the entire region likely had a population of only around 10,000. Diseases brought by the first settlers in the 17th century killed most of that small population and so the area was left largely empty save for a few scattered groups of native people. After more than a century of fighting over the territory between colonial powers, Uruguay gained independence in 1830 and began to become a modern state by the 1870s.
In the late 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Europeans emigrated to Uruguay, bringing with them economic connections to the continent as well as better agricultural knowledge which kickstarted the country’s economy. Throughout the 20th century, despite some political conflicts, Uruguay made strides at becoming a developed country and brought its extreme poverty rate to the single digits. Since the early 2000s, the country has seen significant reductions in poverty and large improvements in healthcare capability and overall quality of life.
In a span of just 12 years from 2006 to 2018, the poverty rate in Uruguay decreased from more than 30% to 8%, while the extreme poverty rate went from 2.5% to 0.1%. Uruguay diversified its economy from one mostly reliant on its neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, to splitting its most important trade partners four ways, with China and the European Union becoming its two largest partners. Its success in creating a working, safe democracy in the 21st century has opened up the country as a popular tourism destination and tourism now accounts for nearly 10% of Uruguay’s GDP. Uruguay maintains the largest middle class in the Americas consisting of more than 60% of its population, fueling economic growth as most people in the country hold savings and can afford to buy consumer goods.
Uruguay’s Prepared Response to COVID-19
All of Uruguay’s recent economic success has allowed the country to create a well-functioning healthcare system capable of keeping its citizens healthy. Its history and geographical small size have led the country to be prepared to combat COVID-19. Uruguay’s health system, a mix of public and private care which also allows the lowest-income residents of the country to get high-quality care at low or zero-cost, was prepared to handle a crisis. Broad support for the government meant that at the start of the pandemic, citizens trusted their public health officials and followed the guidelines they put out.
The Uruguayan health system, unlike most others in South America, also had the capability to make its own COVID-19 PCR tests from the start of the pandemic—allowing public health officials to contact trace early cases. In May, when a region of Uruguay bordering Brazil saw a small outbreak, the public health response was immediate. As described by Dr. Rafael Radi, the coordinator of Uruguay’s scientific advisory group, “Within 24 hours there was a contingent of people—epidemiologists, nurses, physicians went to Treinta y Tres to completely follow the transmission chain, test every single person and follow up the contacts of the contacts.” Such strong measures make it difficult for the virus to gain a hold in the country.
Despite being located right next to Brazil, a COVID-19 hotspot, Uruguay was able to combat COVID-19 and reopen its internal economy quickly. Masks are required indoors and on public transport and are encouraged everywhere else. Most schools and universities in the country are open with in-person classes. To date, Uruguay has reported fewer than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 and 52 deaths. Already achieving high-income status, if Uruguay can continue its economic growth post-COVID-19 and improve its education system to train its youth for the future, the country is well on its way to being a truly developed nation on par with other small countries like Singapore and Ireland.
– Jeff Keare