Uruguay thought coronavirus had passed it by—until a wealthy socialite came home from Europe

The Uruguay government closed the country’s border with Argentina as the country went from no confirmed cases to more than a hundred in a week.

Uruguay celebrated the absence of the deadly coronavirus in early March, but confirmed 110 cases in the following week—half of which are being blamed on a Uruguayan fashion designer who arrived back in the country from Spain.

“I arrived feeling well and without symptoms. I asked if there was some measure in the airport because I came from Europe and they told me no. That same day, I had lunch with my 84-year-old mom and at night went to a wedding of 500 people,” read a post on Carmela Hontou’s official Instagram account.

A screen capture of Carmela Hontou’s Instagram post where the fashion designer explains her actions after arriving back in Uruguay from Europe. (Instagram/carmela.hontou)

The growth in cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, and stories of Hontou, have led to a backlash of social media users blasting her as an irresponsible “cheta,” or rich woman, who brought the virus to the country.

“What stupidity…Do you know how many people came on the same airplane as me?” reads a separate post that Hontou quoted and answered.

Voice messages on WhatsApp criticizing Hontou went viral last week. The compiled audio clips have been played and replayed online and by mass media, reflecting economic and class tensions in the country.

“It wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone,” wrote Hontou on one of her most-commented Instagram posts. More than 540 people replied, some calling her ignorant, irresponsible and egotistical.

The virus’s arrival in Uruguay has set the country and its recently elected government into action.

“I just haven’t stopped,” said Dr. Verónica Bonello via a WhatsApp voice message. She said she otherwise couldn’t make the time to respond to questions while working to contain the virus.

“The demand for doctors has grown for house calls. The people have been asked to stay inside, so that means that they’re now sending doctors to homes for whatever respiratory symptom a person calls about,” she said.

As of Friday, March 13 Uruguay, Surinam, and French Guyana were the only three countries in South America thought to be unaffected by the virus. Cases grew during the days that followed and the government took action, including closing schools. By the following Monday, the Uruguayan government confirmed a total of eight cases—two of them “unimported,” or from people who had not recently traveled outside the country, “which indicates that the virus is circulating.”

President Luís Lacalle Pou announced that evening that the known cases had more than tripled, to 29. He also announced the closing of borders with Argentina, which had already reported cases of COVID-19.

“Thousands of Uruguayans still haven’t become conscious of the situation,” said the president, asking those 65 or older to stay home because they’re the most vulnerable to the disease.

Luis Lacalle Pou was inaugurated as Uruguay’s president on March 1. (Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy of Uruguay)

The number of cases in the country stood at 158 on Sunday. Uruguay is also requiring travelers from the U.S., China, South Korea, Italy, Spain and other countries it considers high risk to stay in quarantine for 14 days. The government also banned cruise ship passengers and crew from entering the country.

The growing numbers of cases are making many Uruguayans nervous.

Félix López, a student at Laboratorio Tecnológico del Uruguay, said he is worried. The public university is closed for two weeks on government orders.

“I was in contact with so many people in Carrasco, since I sold coffee in one of the most expensive stadiums on March 11,” he said. “It leaves me wondering.”