Philippines

WHO: LatAm now virus epicenter

NEW YORK: The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Latin America “a new epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic Friday, as United States President Donald Trump demanded churches reopen despite the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) threat.

MORE DEATHS Gravediggers at a cemetery outside Brazil’s Sao Paulo on May 22, 2020, a day after the World Health Organization has warned that South America is a new epicenter of Covid-19. AFP PHOTO

China, meanwhile, warned that its economy would suffer an immense hit from the coronavirus and Beijing’s communist rulers for the first time in decades decided not to declare a target for growth, underscoring the setback from the pandemic.

Surges in infections across much of Central and South America continued to drive the global toll higher even as hard-hit nations in Europe, along with the US, sought to move into a cautious recovery phase with new infections dipping.

Covid-19 has killed more than 335,500 people since it surfaced in China late last year, according to an Agence France-Presse tally, with more than 5.1 million declared cases in 196 countries and territories.

And even as China claims to have the virus under control, Premier Li Keqiang told hundreds of mask-wearing representatives at the National People’s Congress that the pandemic brought “great uncertainty” to the country’s huge economy.

Brazil this week became the latest flashpoint as its death toll surged past 21,000 — and with over 330,000 cases the Latin American giant is now the second most affected country, behind the US and Russia.

“In a sense, South America has become a new epicenter for the disease,” said WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan. “Clearly there is a concern across many of those countries, but clearly the most affected is Brazil at this point,” he said.

Most of Brazil’s cases are in densely populated Sao Paulo, but the highest rate of infection is in the state of Amazonas, at about 490 people infected per 100,000 population, he said.

Unlike in Europe and the US, where the elderly were hardest-hit, in Brazil a significant number of deaths are among younger people, who are often driven by poverty to work despite the dangers.

“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,” said Sanchez. As the toll mounted, gravediggers at a cemetery outside Sao Paulo were scrambling to keep up.

“We’ve been working 12-hour days, burying them one after the other. It doesn’t stop,” said one worker at Vila Formosa, wearing a white protective suit, mask and face shield.

In Washington President Trump, facing an uphill battle to be reelected in November, continued to pressure state and local governments to reopen the American economy — even as the toll continues to rise in the world’s hardest-hit country, where Covid-19 had claimed almost 96,000 lives as of Friday according to Johns Hopkins University.

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 Covid-19 restrictions 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.”

As governors generally have the power to order openings and closings, it was not clear whether Trump had any authority to force them to remove restrictions on worship services.

But Trump has previously given his support to street protests demanding the end of lockdown measures.

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