South America ignores Europe and reopens as virus peak nears

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Pedestrians and commuters wearing face masks amid the new coronavirus pandemic crowd a sidewalk near a bus stop in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, June 1, 2020. After two and a half months of COVID-19 related quarantine, some industries are allowed to reactivate under a scheme of five days' work and 10 days rest. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

RIO DE JANEIRO – South American countries on Monday began easing COVID-19 restrictions even as the region hurtles toward its viral peak, disregarding the example set by European nations that were battered earlier by the virus.

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 authorized 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.

Rolling back measures runs counter to Europe's approach of waiting for the worst to pass before resuming activity, and South America trails much further behind on its viral curve. Even European nations that lifted restrictions earliest in their respective outbreaks – the U.K. and Russia - did so only after clearing their initial peaks.

The executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, 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 health care 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.