Latin American deaths could treble by October, WHO warns

Jordan Kelly-Linden
A gravedigger works during a funeral at the Parque Taruma cemetery in Manaus, Brazil - BRUNO KELLY / Reuters 

The death toll in Latin America could treble by October if countries across the entire region do not deal with outbreaks on a localised level, a World Health Organization official warned today.

More than five million Covid-19 cases and 247,000 deaths were registered across the Americas, which includes the United States, Latin and South America as well as the Caribbean, as of 29 June.

Overall the region has reported more cases than any other place on earth. However, the total number of cases only tell part of the story, the director of the WHO’s regional branch, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), warned today.

Multiple epidemiological curves can co-exist within each region and each country and responses must be tailored accordingly, PAHO chief Dr Carissa F. Etienne told a press conference.

“It is important to look beyond regional and national data and to focus on the local level to truly understand the true impact of the virus,” she said.  

“We often hear about the number of cases in large countries like Brazil, Mexico or the United States without the appreciation of their consideration of societal and geographical diversity.” 

In the United States, Washington State and New York are now seeing very low numbers of new cases and deaths, while 27 other states are reporting exponential growth, she added. 

In contrast Manaus, Brazil saw its first day without reporting new deaths from Covid-19 this week, after weeks of dealing with high mortality. And several Caribbean countries and territories were able to curb transmission completely and have reported no new cases for several weeks.

“We must take into account this mosaic of situations and work within diverse settings to keep transmission under control,” Dr Etienne said.

“Most countries across the Americas have implemented effective public health measures that slowed the spread of the virus and saved countless lives,” she said,

But she admitted that the region’s complex and varied economic situation, characterised in many countries by poverty, may have taken its toll on their response to the pandemic.

“Many people live below the poverty line or rely on the informal economy [in our region] making quarantine measures difficult to uphold for protracted periods, and because our health services are not distributed equally, some communities are far better served than others.”

Coronavirus Brazil Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Despite some relatively local gains, Dr Etienne also warned that countries should not get complacent.

“Complacency is our enemy in the fight against Covid-19,” she said, as she acknowledged that the death toll for the whole region could almost treble if more is not done to curb the spread of the virus.

Fatalities have reached 113,844 in Latin America alone. The number of deaths from Covid-19 is equal to almost one fifth of the number of people who have died globally, according to mapping by Reuters.

The Americas is now the world epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic and the toll for the whole region could almost treble to 637,000 by 1 October, the WHO official said, though she cautioned that mathematical model projections should not be taken literally but only as planning guides.

Under current conditions, the pandemic is expected to peak in Chile and Colombia by mid-July, but in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru not until August, and Costa Rica will not flatten its curve of infection until October, she said.

Countries, states and cities that relax restrictions too soon can be flooded with new Covid-19 cases, Dr Etienne and other directors of PAHO said in a virtual briefing from Washington.

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