Uruguay: From a Proactive Approach to COVID-19 to Shoutouts from Google & Apple
“Why am I hearing so much about Uruguay and Covid-19” is what I get asked a lot lately by friends, clients, and partners here in the US. I’ve been observing how different my home country Uruguay has been handling the past few months compared to what I have experienced in Texas. While far from perfect, I loved seeing how Uruguay has moved towards the spotlight as an “exception”, “beacon of success”, “distinguished”, to name a few. This is why I wanted to share my take on Uruguay’s unique story and how its tech background has been and is playing a crucial role during these crazy times.
I believe for everyone, 2020 has been a year of unprecedented events, many of which have challenged countries and businesses to develop an appropriate response directed at both physical and economic health. While here in Texas we have reached a record high of COVID-19 cases and so many countries continue to struggle with how to minimize and contain COVID-19 and the economic downturn it triggered, my home country Uruguay has served as a benchmark for how to address the challenges of a pandemic – and that makes me proud.
While some might be hearing about Uruguay for the first time, the country is a usual suspect when it comes to doing things a little differently, or standing out as a progressive, forward-thinking Nation. In addition, for some time now it has been called the “Silicon Valley of Latin America” and considered a safe haven for innovative startups and technology leaders due to its economic and political stability.
The second smallest country in Latin America, tucked in between Argentina and Brazil, hosts over 700 IT companies, exporting software and technology solutions mainly to the United States. Along with major infrastructure developments in technology and high literacy, Uruguay has become a model for innovation and advancement.
A Crisis Prevented
Recently, Uruguay also took an innovative approach with COVID-19. Among its 3.5 million people were 789 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 22 deaths recorded. Putting this into perspective per one million inhabitants, compared to almost 21.31 relative fatalities in Argentina and 227.95 in neighboring Brazil, Uruguay only had approximately 6.95 fatalities per one million inhabitants. In comparison, the U.S. COVID-19 cases are up to more than 2.1 million along with 361.51 fatalities per one million inhabitants. In this way, Uruguay reflects the same low results of New Zealand, another country that has seen little impact from the pandemic.
A Fast Strategic Response
So, what did Uruguay do differently? The country has emerged as a hot topic not just among my friends and colleagues here in Houston but also in the international press, which has highlighted its rapid, proactive response to COVID-19. Its strategy combined aggressive testing (including a self-developed COVID-19 test), a tracing mobile app available just days after the outbreak with a recommended non-mandatory quarantine, a strong media communication strategy, urging people to wear face-masks and maintain social-distancing, immediate border closure with Brazil and Argentina, the shutdown of schools cinemas and shopping centers, road checkpoints, and an investment in a strong healthcare system. While many countries have taken similar measures, few have been as agile in taking action or have been able to count on a similarly compliant population.
For those who know the country, this doesn’t come as a surprise. As soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Montevideo around March 13, the country responded, having prepared for different scenarios and closely observed previously exemplary countries, such as the successful case in South Korea. Citizens willingly complied with a shelter-in-place recommendation and quickly adapted to a work-from-home model. A service country, Uruguay has a strong nearshore track record of exporting software to 50+ countries. From a one-laptop-per-child initiative, free public education to tax incentives for tech companies, Uruguay has worked thoroughly on becoming one of the strongest regional tech hubs. With an entire population having access to exceptional connectivity and Internet penetration, the transition to remote work was relatively easy and seamless. Their positive and humble response most likely also contributed to the low COVID-19 cases and death count and prevented the economy from getting paralyzed.
As soon as the first case of COVID-19 was reported in our areas, we went 100% remote and sent our people home. We made supporting our team a priority, from technical & office supplies, surprise care packages to a strong HR strategy to stay connected via frequent leadership updates, fun online activities, and giving everyone tools to update us on how they were doing. Source: December Labs
Getting the Attention of Google and Apple
The results of Uruguay’s response and innovative approach even impressed Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who, in a letter to the country’s president, said, “With its innovative approach to harnessing technology for social good, Uruguay will be the first country in Latin America to launch an app that integrates our Exposure Notifications API.” Apple’s Tim Cook also sent his congratulations “on the launching of the new Coronavirus UY App that incorporates the Exposure Notification technology”.
This initial Covid-19 consultation app was released to the public just days after the outbreak and was ready to very quickly integrate with Google and Apple’s exposure notification API for smartphones. The app requires three authorizations from users, including permission to download the app, notify those closest to the user should they test positive for COVID-19, and let the Uruguayan government know that the user was exposed to COVID-19.
Leveraging Technology Solutions to Stay Safe
Beyond adopting tracing technology, the country has applied big data processes to assess the overall impact of COVID-19 on health and economic factors. Many developers, startups, and tech companies in Uruguay worked in partnership to create tools and solutions that would support their communities and country during the pandemic.
Apps, tools like chatbots, and websites and platforms emerged to connect people for volunteer needs, to spread awareness about open businesses and delivery services, and to provide telemedicine and accurate information about the virus. Other technology solutions enabled organizations to pull together resources for Uruguayans in a fragile economic situation.
Half a Million Students Back at School as the Country Re-Opens
Additionally, the country is enacting strong economic and comprehensive humanitarian initiatives to help with the area’s overall recovery efforts. Although Uruguay has yet to see what the next few months hold as schools and nine-tenths of businesses begin to re-open, the country remains cautiously optimistic that they can start designing their “new” normal for school and work. Already, the country is confident that many are ready, including nearly half a million students who have been qualified to return to school.
Offices are re-opening, providing socially-distanced work environments, and necessary sanitary measures. Source: December Labs
Once a Hidden Jewel, Now an Opportunity
Many in the tech startup and software industry have known about Uruguay’s potential for some time. With the country’s ability to dramatically reduce COVID-19’s impact, it proves even more that Uruguay offers an opportunity to thrive in a safe, highly skilled environment that embraces innovation and technology advancement.
Any thoughts or questions about Uruguay or if you want to learn how to prepare a good mate ?, I’d be happy to connect.