South America has become the “new epicentre” of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation has warned.
Brazil is the hardest-hit country in the region, while cases are rising in some African countries that so far have a relatively low death toll.
“In a sense South America has become a new epicentre for the disease,” Dr Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies expert, told a news conference over the weekend.
Dr Ryan said Brazil is now “clearly the most affected”, noting the country has approved broad use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine – a drug which has not been proven to effectively treat COVID-19.
The South American continent is extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.
It has a population of over 400 million, and healthcare services are already reaching full capacity.
As South American countries attempt to balance their economies with handling the virus outbreak, a recent crash in the oil market has significantly impacted South American, oil-industry dependent countries.
But no country has been hit harder than Brazil, where more than 20,000 people have now died due to COVID-19, with the country’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro still dismissing the risks of the virus and calling for restrictions to be eased.
US President Donald Trump is restricting travel to Brazil as a result, with the White House touching on the direness of the situation there.
“As of May 23, 2020, Brazil had 310,087 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is the third highest number of confirmed cases in the world,” the White House said in a statement today. “Today’s action will help ensure foreign nationals who have been in Brazil do not become a source of additional infections in our country.”
WHY WAS BRAZIL HIT SO HARD?
Brazil has now recorded more than 310,000 cases, with experts saying a lack of testing means the real figures are probably much higher.
With its curve of infections and deaths rising sharply, the country of 210 million ranks third in the world in terms of total cases, behind the United States and Russia.
The death toll – the sixth highest in the world – has doubled in just 11 days, according to ministry data.
Despite the worrying spread of the disease, Mr Bolsonaro on Thursday continued his calls to scrap lockdown measures to revive a flagging economy.
But almost all of the country’s 27 states are under some sort of lockdown order, though Brazilians are wearying of the restrictions in place since the end of March.
Sao Paulo state, the economic and cultural capital of Brazil, is by far the most affected, with about a quarter of the country’s deaths and infections.
Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, who has clashed often with the President over containment measures, has said the country has to fight both coronavirus and “Bolsonarovirus”.
But Mr Bolsonaro and the governors sounded a conciliatory note on Thursday as they held a video conference on co-ordinating the response to the pandemic.
The President called it “a great victory for the Brazilian people”. Doria, for his part, urged unity.
“Brazil needs to be united. If we’re at war, we all face defeat. Let’s go together in peace, Mr President, together for Brazil,” he said.
Hospitals in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and various states across northern and northeastern Brazil are near collapse.
The authorities have been racing to set up field hospitals with more beds, but are struggling to build them fast enough.
Mr Bolsonaro, who has famously compared the virus to a “little flu,” appears to have pinned his hopes on the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to stop it.
He has gone through two health ministers since the pandemic began, and the crucial ministry is now in the hands of an interim, Army General Eduardo Pazuello.
The last health minister, Nelson Teich, resigned last week after less than a month on the job, reportedly after clashing with Bolsonaro over the President’s insistence on widespread chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine use.
The drugs have shown inconclusive results against coronavirus, and scientists say further studies are needed to determine whether they are safe and effective for COVID-19.
But like his US counterpart Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Mr Bolsonaro sees them as potential wonder drugs.
No sooner was Mr Teich out the door, than Bolsonaro’s government recommended on Wednesday that all COVID-19 patients receive one of the drugs as soon as they show symptoms.
“There is still no scientific proof, but (chloroquine) is being monitored and used in Brazil and around the world,” Mr Bolsonaro tweeted afterwards.
“We are at war.”
– With AFP