'Until the dead are your dead': Uruguay ICU staff decry pandemic laxity

Montevideo (AFP) –


Intensive care workers in Uruguay are at their wits' end. While they work day and night to save the lives of coronavirus patients, the population at large, they say, seems unperturbed by the mounting health crisis.

"Unfortunately, people do not seem to comprehend," said Carla Romero, a nursing assistant at an ICU unit in Montevideo.

"That's how it is. Until the dead are your dead... until it happens in your family, it is hard for people to comprehend."

Tiny Uruguay, with its population of 3.5 million, has gone from a shining example of Covid-19 control to a nation in pandemic crisis.

Figures collated by AFP show a two-week infection rate of 1,331 per 100,000 inhabitants -- by far the highest in the world.

In absolute numbers, the country wedged between Brazil and Argentina, is registering about 3,000 new cases per day, and almost 60 daily deaths.

With 2,022 in total, Uruguay has had fewer deaths as a percentage of its population than most Latin American countries, and many in Europe, but in the last two weeks, it had the region's highest death rate.

The country has never had a lockdown, and restaurants and bars remain open.

A major contributor to Uruguay's fast-spreading outbreak has been its proximity to hard-hit Brazil and its more contagious P1 virus variant, which has spread across the border.

The government has steadfastly rejected calls for a national lockdown, and observers and health personnel complain of a laxness that has taken hold of society.

"You see it on the street: almost everyone without masks. People don't believe, that's it. Until you have a relative in here, you don't believe," intensive care worker Francisco Dominguez told AFP.

Nearly 75 percent of Uruguay's 978 intensive care beds are occupied -- more than half by coronavirus patients, according to the SUMI medical society.

"We are at the end of our strength," said Dominguez of the ICU workload and mental burden of seeing so many patients die.

All hopes are on Uruguay's immunization campaign, which has so far provided a first dose for nearly a third of the population, and two doses for 10 percent.