Sat | Jul 4, 2020

South America reopens despite rising virus cases

Published:Wednesday | June 3, 2020 | 12:16 AM
Workers of the Corabastos market, one of Latin America’s largest food distribution centres, take the temperature of drivers due to the presence of the new coronavirus, in the Kennedy area of Bogota, Colombia, on Monday, June 1, 2020.
Workers of the Corabastos market, one of Latin America’s largest food distribution centres, take the temperature of drivers due to the presence of the new coronavirus, in the Kennedy area of Bogota, Colombia, on Monday, June 1, 2020.

South American countries on Monday began easing COVID-19 restrictions even as the region hurtles towards its viral peak.

Some of Brazil’s hardest hit cities, including the jungle metropolis Manaus and coastal Rio de Janeiro, are starting to allow more activity.

Bolivia’s government authorised reopening most of the country and the government of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro unwound restrictions.

Ecuador’s airports were resuming flights and shoppers returning to some of Colombia’s malls.

The executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme, Mike Ryan, expressed concern over South America’s climbing contagion, telling reporters Monday that the region had become an “intense zone of transmission for this virus”, which had not yet reached its peak.

“Clearly, the situation in many South American countries is far from stable. There is a rapid increase in cases and those systems are coming under increasing pressure,” he said.

Data from the WHO’s Pan American Health Organization shows the region’s seven-day rolling average of new cases continues rising, due in large part to Brazil, which accounts for more than half the total.

Manaus, the Amazon rainforest’s largest city, was the first Brazilian metropolis whose healthcare system collapsed. For weeks, overwhelmed intensive-care units were unable to admit patients, deaths at home surged and a city cemetery buried bodies in mass graves.

Such burials continue, yet the capital of Amazonas state on Monday began loosening its clamp on non-essential businesses. Amazonas registered 818 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the total number of cases above 40,000. There are more than 500,000 confirmed cases in Brazil, the second most in the world, and experts believe the true toll to be much higher due to insufficient testing.

Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian city with the second-most cases after Sao Paulo, on Monday announced it would begin gradually relaxing restrictions the following day. Already a city in its metropolitan region, Sao Joao de Meriti, started allowing salons, auto mechanics, and hotels to operate on Monday.

GRIM SCENES

Ecuador was one of the first South American nations slammed, with grim scenes of people leaving corpses outside their doorsteps in Guayaquil through March and April. The nation’s caseload continues to surge, yet its airport will resume international flights today, June 3, according to Nicolás Romero, the airport’s spokesperson, though he said arriving passengers must spend 15 days in quarantine, without specifying how such quarantine will be enforced.

The airport in capital, Quito, recorded its first flight in 80 days on Monday, and flights to Miami and Houston will take off on June 4.

“It has just been one flight so far, but the important thing is the message it gives, of flying safely,” Luis Galárraga, the airport’s spokesperson, told The Associated Press.

Across Ecuador’s border, Colombia has shut the international airport in its capital, Bogotá, until September and locked down an entire working-class district home to 1.5 million people. But in the nation’s second city, Medellin, malls cautiously began opening their doors on Monday, though checking customers’ temperatures upon entry.

Medellin’s Mayor Daniel Quintero highlighted that the city registered no COVID-19 deaths in the prior 30 days. The national death toll, however, continues rising.

Marcos Espinal, director of PAHO’s communicable diseases department, said by phone that reopening too soon could cause harm in certain places that aren’t yet ready.

“If you’re in the middle of the epicentre, we don’t recommend to open,” Espinal said from Washington. “People’s lives are precious, and there shouldn’t be any negotiations of that.”

Venezuela on Monday allowed barbershops, beauty salons, auto shops, construction sites and banks to begin operations, along with other sectors. The nation is dialling down restrictions because it has reported relatively low COVID-19 impact: 1,510 cases and 14 deaths. Experts have roundly criticised Venezuela’s data as suspicious.

Bolivia on Monday instituted a so-called “dynamic quarantine” in most of the country, keeping parks and shows shuttered while resuming work, commerce and public transport, even as contagion continues rising.

The government’s public works minister, Iván Arias, suggested Monday that men should shave their beards and moustaches to prevent infection. The Health Ministry’s epidemiological director, Virgílio Prieto, offered less optimism about recalibrating the nation’s quarantine, admitting it “could bring about an explosion of the new coronavirus”.

AP