Coronavirus hits Uruguay's mate drinkers

Gabriela VAZ
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Social distancing is putting an end to sharing mate through a single metal straw called a 'bombilla', a popular activity in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay

Much Uruguayan social life revolves around the sharing of a traditional hot herbal infusion called mate, but even that seemingly innocuous practice is under threat from the new coronavirus pandemic.

The sight of people walking down the street with a mate gourd cupped in one hand, its metal straw sticking out, and a thermos tucked under the other arm is synonymous with Uruguay.

Friends will often relax sharing a single gourd of mate -- pronounced mah-tay -- through the same metal "bombilla" straw.

But Uruguay's government has asked its people not to share bombillas any more.

It's been a shock to the system for many Uruguayans, like Leonel Garcia who turned down a sip from his sister's mate.

"I didn't want to drink it with her!" said the 43-year-old from Montevideo.

Uruguayans consume 10 kilograms (22 pounds) a year of yerba mate -- the bitter herb infused in piping hot water to make the mate drink -- more than anyone else. An average drinker thinks nothing of consuming two liters (four pints) a day.

Giving it up is not an option in a country where it's almost an addiction, but the experience is changing.

"I haven't stopped drinking mate, simply because I can't, but I've lost ... the spirit of congregation, of closeness, of complicity, of getting together," said Garcia.

Mate, which was first produced by the indigenous Guarani people is also popular in Argentina, Paraguay and parts of Brazil and Chile.

It is so ingrained in Argentine, Paraguayan and Uruguayan culture that each country has its own separate national mate day.

- Impolite not to share -

Authorities in Argentina are just as worried as those in Uruguay and have advised against "sharing mate, cutlery and utensils."

In Paraguay, the government warned of the risks involved in sharing terere, a yerba mate infusion that is drunk cold or even frozen.

"People have to get used to it and stop sharing," Paraguay's Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni told AFP.

But in all three countries, it's considered almost impolite to drink alone when among people.

"There's never been a study in our countries about this ancient tradition of sharing mate in terms of transmitting pathogens," Uruguayan epidemiologist Eduardo Savio, a coordinator at the Pan American Association of Infectious Diseases, told AFP.

"Now, there's a reason (to stop sharing) given that the virus is found in saliva. If you share mate with other people, you could ingest saliva containing the virus and that's a way of getting infected."

However, habits die hard. In Buenos Aires and Montevideo over the weekend, groups of people could be seen sharing their mate.

Sharing is not just a sign of respect or amiability, it's the crux of this daily ceremony.

Late Uruguayan anthropologist Daniel Vidart once wrote that "behind the action ... of preparing and drinking mate, there is a definition of the world and life ... mate overcomes isolation tendencies."

That's exactly the opposite of the health advice being given to suppress the spread of the coronavirus.