Latin America is the new epicentre: WHO

Brazil, with 3,30,000 cases and 21,000 deaths, emerges as the worst-hit country in the region.

May 23, 2020 06:53 am | Updated 11:13 pm IST - RIO DE JANEIRO

In quarantine: COVID-19 patients being treated at the municipal field hospital in Manaus, Brazil, earlier this month.

In quarantine: COVID-19 patients being treated at the municipal field hospital in Manaus, Brazil, earlier this month.

South America is “a new epicentre” of the coronavirus ( COVID-19 ) pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared, as U.S. President Donald Trump intensified his push to reopen the reeling American economy.

Brazil led the surge across South America, its death toll passing 21,000 on Friday from 3,30,000 infections, the third-highest caseload of any country in a pandemic that has infected 5.2 million globally and killed more than 338,000.

Brazil surpasses 1,000 coronavirus deaths in 24 hours

Experts have hailed the impact of lockdown measures for slowing the spread of the COVID-19 disease, but Mr. Trump has long prioritised the needs of the economy over public health concerns — renewing his attacks on Friday on local officials for refusing to allow businesses to reopen.

Blow to U.S. economy

His concerns about the economy were thrown into stark relief late on Friday when car-rental giant Hertz filed for bankruptcy for its North American operations — yet another sign of the virus and lockdown laying waste to the U.S. economy, which has already shed almost 40 million jobs.

In Europe, where rates of infections and deaths are stabilising in many countries, governments are moving away from enforced national lockdowns towards advisory measures involving social distancing.

“In a sense, South America has become a new epicentre for the disease,” WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said on Friday, singling out Brazil. Unlike in Europe and the United States, where the elderly were hardest-hit, a significant number of deaths in Brazil have been younger people, who are often driven by poverty to work despite the threat of infection.

As the toll mounted, grave-diggers at a cemetery outside the commercial hub Sao Paulo were scrambling to keep up. “We’ve been working 12-hour days, burying them one after the other,” said one worker at Vila Formosa, wearing a white protective suit, mask and face shield.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Peru was also struggling with an intense outbreak — the country of 32 million having registered more than 1,10,000 cases and 3,100 deaths.

Trump’s reopening call

The figures, though disastrous for region, are dwarfed by the 96,000 deaths suffered so far in the United States, which has registered 1.6 million infections. However, Mr. Trump is facing an uphill re-election battle later this year and is ramping up pressure on State and local governments, telling them on Friday to restart religious services immediately by reclassifying churches, synagogues and mosques as “essential services”.

“In America, we need more prayer, not less,” said Mr. Trump, who counts religious conservatives as a core of his electoral base.

The administration also renewed attacks on city officials, suggesting lockdown measures in Los Angeles were illegal.

“We are not guided by politics in this we are guided by science, we are guided by collaboration,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The U.S. also pushed on Friday to restart the sporting calendar.

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