WASHINGTON (AFP) – The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Latin America “a new epicentre” of the coronavirus pandemic as United States (US) 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 US 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 US and Russia.
“In a sense, South America has become a new epicentre 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 US, 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.”
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 US – the worst-hit country 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.
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 on Friday it would exempt from entry bans foreign professional athletes competing in the top leagues for several sports. “In today’s environment, Americans need their sports,” said Chad Wolf of the Homeland Security Department.