• Monday, Jun 01, 2020
  • Last Update : 03:10 pm

WHO declares Latin America new coronavirus epicenter

  • Published at 06:43 pm May 23rd, 2020
WHO-declares-Latin-America-new-coronavirus-epicenter
Gravediggers wearing protective suits bury a coffin during the outbreak of the coronavirus, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 22, 2020 Reuters

The death toll in Brazil has soared past 20,000, and with 310,000 reported cases

The World Health Organization declared Latin America "a new epicenter" of the coronavirus pandemic as President Donald Trump ramped up pressure on state and local governments to speed up the reopening of the reeling American economy.

Surges in infections across much of Central and South America have driven the global case count to nearly 5.2 million, with more than 337,000 deaths, even as hard-hit Europe and the United States cautiously move into a recovery phase.

The death toll in Brazil has soared past 20,000, and with 310,000 reported cases, it has the third-biggest caseload in the world behind the United States and Russia.

"In a sense, South America has become a new epicenter for the disease," WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said on Friday.

"We've seen many South American countries with increasing numbers of cases... but certainly the most affected is Brazil at this point."

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.

"Since Brazil has a younger population, it's normal for the number of cases to be higher among under-60s," said Mauro Sanchez, an epidemiologist at the University of Brasilia.

"What's perverse is that a lot of the people who are exposing themselves to the virus are doing it because they don't have a choice."

As the toll mounted, grave-diggers at a cemetery outside Sao Paulo scrambled 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.

"It doesn't stop."

'We need more prayer'

In Washington, President Trump, keen to find a way out of the crisis and facing an uphill re-election battle, ramped up pressure on state and local governments to ease lockdown measures.

The pandemic has hammered the American economy and led to calls for an end to virus restrictions, despite the Covid-19 numbers still rising in the United States -- the worst-hit country in the world with 1.6 million infections and 96,000 deaths.

Trump demanded state governors classify churches, synagogues and mosques as "essential services" on the same level as food and drug stores, and immediately allow them to hold services despite curbs on public gatherings.

"The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend," said the president, who counts religious conservatives as a core of his electoral base.

"If they don't do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less," added Trump, who has previously expressed support for street protests against lockdowns.

It was not clear whether he had any authority to override the governors.

There was pushback from the mayor of Los Angeles after the Trump administration warned that the continued lockdown in the city could be illegal.

"We are not guided by politics in this -- we are guided by science, we are guided by collaboration," said Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In the latest step to restart the economy, the Trump administration said Friday it would exempt from entry bans foreign professional athletes competing in the top leagues for several sports, including basketball, tennis and golf.

"In today's environment, Americans need their sports," Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Homeland Security department, said in a statement announcing the order.

"It's time to reopen the economy and it's time we get our professional athletes back to work."



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