The scene in Rio de Janeiro was as though much of 2020 had never happened.
The beaches at Ipanema and Copacabana heaved with visitors, the white sand obscured by bronzed bodies, sun loungers and parasols, as locals enjoyed the blistering 38C heat.
Even though Brazil has seen the third largest Covid-19 outbreak in the world, behind the United States and India, the vast majority of bathers ignored social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines altogether.
“Things have to go back to normal,” said Raniel Braga, who said that – after a desperately slow first half of the year – business at his paddle board rental on Copacabana Beach was picking up again. “Like it or not, we’re going to have to live with this virus for a while.”
“People who go to the beach are those who feel safe,” he said, as unmasked police officers surveyed the crowds. “People who are scared don’t go to the beach.”
But while Braga is delighted that Rio’s beaches are packed once again, international health officials are worried. This week, the World Health Organisation warned that countries across Latin America, are rushing back to normality prematurely – a mistake that could prove catastrophic in a region that already accounts for a third of global pandemic deaths.
“As leaders across the world face pressure to resume social and public life, it’s important that they avoid making decisions in a vacuum,” said Carissa Etienne, the director of the Americas division of the WHO, in a virtual news conference on Wednesday. Reopening before health systems are ready “would risk a handful of cases in one area becoming a full-blown outbreak,” she warned.
Much of Latin America has been locked down since mid-March, when the first few cases were confirmed, with some countries, like Colombia, only lifting nationwide restrictions at the start of September. The region has seen some of the longest lockdowns in the world, with citizens in many cities advised to leave their homes only when absolutely necessary.
But now, even though Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Argentina all sit in the top 10 countries by coronavirus cases – with over 7.2m cases between them – exasperated citizens are abandoning social distancing.
Hardest hit during those long months of lockdown were workers in the informal economy, which makes up 40% of the region’s GDP, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Many of those working informally, in jobs like construction and domestic work, are often without bank accounts and unable, or ineligible, to receive any government support.
“The last few months were a nightmare without anyone to sell to,” said Flor, who was selling incense at a stall in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. “But I thank God that people have been kind, and now there are people back on the streets.”
Elsewhere in the city, diners flocked to the terraces of recently re-opened restaurants. “A beer has never tasted so good,” said Camilo Villalobos, who was dining with friends at a restaurant in northern Bogotá. “Nearly six months of lockdown takes a toll. It just feels good to be outside again … we’ll see what happens with Covid cases but people need to live their lives.”
In Mexico and Brazil, presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Jair Bolsonaro have continued to flout public health guidelines, holding political events with supporters.
“The problem here in Mexico is that the pandemic has been politicised so much that people don’t believe it or have doubts, and that’s the problem,” said Dr Antonio Alfaro, who oversees a Covid-19 ward in the north-eastern city Matamoros. Authorities in northern Mexico have also had to deal with the consequences of surging case numbers in the US: according to Alfaro, a premature opening across the border in Texas had exacerbated conditions in Mexico.
In Latin America, discontent against the lockdowns has occasionally flared into violence: vendors in Bogotá clashed with police in August when restrictions were briefly tightened. In Peru’s capital, Lima, 13 people died in stampede when police raided an illegally operating nightclub.
But with people able to move and work more freely now – and with track-and-trace measures incapable of meeting demand – health experts say that the virus will flourish.
“The sacrifices people make in a lockdown are wasted when governments reopen without adequate preventive measures in place,” said Michael Touchton, a member of a team at the University of Miami that tracks responses to Covid-19 throughout the Americas. “Mandatory, enforced mask use has to become the norm, not the exception.”
Other observers point out that many politicians have leaned on a false dichotomy – the choice between public health and the economy – to justify premature openings, a move that could backfire.
“In the long term, there is no conflict between aggressive public health measures and economic recovery,” said Benjamin Gedan, deputy director at the Wilson Center’s Latin American programme. “The region’s tourism industry, for example, will never recover if travelers do not see Latin American destinations as safe to visit.”
“Pretending the pandemic is over is not a winning strategy.”
• This article was amended on 20 September 2020 to change a reference to “flaunt public health guidelines” to “flout”.