Experts have voiced fears that Latin America’s two largest economies are reopening too fast as a record number of Covid-19 deaths left Brazil poised to overtake Italy as the country with the world’s third-highest number of fatalities.
The South American country recorded 1,262 deaths on Tuesday – a new daily record – taking its official toll to 31,199, not far short of the 33,530 deaths recorded in Italy. Brazil has recorded more than 555,000 infections – second only to the US.
Mexico, meanwhile, has confirmed the deaths of 10,637 people and nearly 100,000 cases although officials admit the true numbers are likely to be considerably higher.
Despite those grim statistics both countries this week began a gradual reopening, as did parts of other countries in the region including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
In Rio, where nearly 4,000 lives have been lost, restrictions on the use of beaches and commerce were partially relaxed and surfers returned to the Atlantic waves off Ipanema. The level of traffic appeared to be returning to normal and car showrooms and estate agents were allowed to reopen.
Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, continued to play down the crisis on Tuesday, telling supporters: “I regret every death but that’s everyone’s destiny.”
In Mexico, the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, resumed his travels, kicking off a six-state tour as the nationwide social distancing rule was relaxed.
In the resort city of Cancún, López Obrador, or Amlo as he is better known, said Mexico now needed to “little by little normalize economic, social and cultural activities”.
“We have to now move towards this new normality because the country’s economy and the wellbeing of our people depends on it,” he said.
But the health official leading Mexico’s response to Covid-19 admitted the pandemic had yet to be fully “tamed”, as the president has claimed. “It should be very clear … we are still a long way from the end of this epidemic,” Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez told Mexico’s El Universal.
Medical specialists in both countries fear the return to “normality” is premature and based on economic rather than health concerns.
“What is happening is an absurdity,” said Paulo Lotufo, an epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo, warning the relaxation would cause the number of infections to soar and pile further pressure on the health system.
Lotufo predicted a particularly “catastrophic” situation in the Amazon region and said the poor would suffer most since it was harder for them to isolate and find healthcare.
“The outlook is awful,” Lotufo added, echoing warnings that Brazil’s death toll could surpass 125,000 in the coming months. “The way things are going we are going to get close to this.”
In an interview with the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, one mathematical modelling expert issued an even more stark warning.
“It is our duty to alert the population to the fact that they’ve been given the green light to go to the slaughterhouse,” said Domingos Alves from the academic monitoring group Covid-19 Brasil.
Alves said the relaxation of quarantine measures could lead to a Covid-19 “massacre” in the states of Rio, São Paulo and Amazonas, where authorities in the capital, Manaus, have already been forced to dig mass graves.
“Social relaxation is based purely on politics. There’s no science to it,” Alves said, adding: “We’re not talking about what will happen in one or two months – but in a week to 10 days.”
Alejandro Macías, a leading infectious diseases specialist in Mexico, said it was sensible for the government to have a plan for reopening but cautioned against doing so too soon when the true extent of the pandemic remained unclear.
“What’s clear to me is that right now not enough time has gone by to say that we have either reached a plateau or, preferably, are starting to see a fall [in cases],” said Macías, who was Mexico’s influenza chief during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
Flávio Dino, the governor of Brazil’s Maranhão state, said he blamed Bolsonaro – who has repeatedly undermined physical distancing and dismissed Covid-19 as a “little flu” – for “sabotaging” the country’s fight against coronavirus and eroding quarantine measures.
“I have no doubt that Bolsonaro is in great measure responsible for this terrible [death] rate that is going to continue growing for several months,” he said.