SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The coronavirus is surging in Latin America. The region accounted for more than a third of new COVID-19 cases last week. That's according to the director of the Pan American Health Organization, Dr. Carissa Etienne. She issued this warning yesterday.
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CARISSA ETIENNE: Think twice before lifting social distancing measures. Social distancing remains our best strategy for containing the spread of the virus.
MCCAMMON: Dr. Etienne's organization has expressed concern about Brazil, which now is second only to the United States in the number of cases. Mexico also is hitting a peak of infections. We're going to talk more about this with NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City and NPR's Brazil-based correspondent Philip Reeves. They join me now.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hello.
MCCAMMON: And, Phil, I'm going to start with you. Brazil is second only to the U.S. in the number of cases. The government there has reported more than 31,000 deaths. We just heard Dr. Etienne warn countries against opening up too soon. Is this what's happening in Brazil?
REEVES: Yes, it is. And scientists are saying the virus in Brazil hasn't yet peaked. There are well over half a million confirmed cases. And that number's recently been going up faster than anywhere else. And despite this, parts of the country - not all, but parts of the country - are opening up. That includes Brazil's most populated areas, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic, where thousands of people have died. Sao Paolo, for example, has started a phased reopening. It's happening in stages. But shopping centers there are back in business, although with some social distancing rules. In Rio de Janeiro, another big city, public hospitals are almost out of intensive care beds, yet people are back on Copacabana Beach in crowds.
Officials say they can lock down if there's a spike, but will they know? Remember, there's a shortage of testing here. Medical experts are really worried about this. There's an independent group of Brazilian scientists that's monitoring the virus. This group is saying that deaths and infections could soar by 150% in just 10 days in areas that open up too early. And one of those scientists was today quoted saying, "we have a duty to warn the public that they're being liberated to go to the slaughterhouse."
MCCAMMON: Wow. And let me turn to you, Carrie. You're in Mexico City, which is also seeing a spike. Does Mexico have the health care resources it needs to cope?
KAHN: Well, for now, it appears the hospitals are holding, but we hear a lot about personal protective gear shortages, faulty equipment and just the lack of personnel. You know, Mexico's public health system is chronically underfunded and under-resourced even during good times. So this is quite a strain. And the hospitals and doctors and nurses here are being pushed to the brink. We're now looking at hitting the 100,000 mark of confirmed cases and more than 10,000 deaths already. And keep in mind Mexico has done very little testing. It's one of the countries with the lowest testing rates in the world. And even health officials say those numbers are vastly undercounted. And among the dead are nearly 300 frontline health workers. This is also a country with one of the world's highest obesity rates. Hypertension and diabetes is high here. So you get people coming to the hospital that are sicker and are tougher to get through the health crisis.
MCCAMMON: And you've reported, Carrie, that Mexico has been lifting restrictions too. Are Mexicans comfortable with it as you talk to people? Is this what they want to happen?
KAHN: Well, some industries have been allowed to reopen, key industries like mining and construction. And a lot of businesses that feed into the U.S. supply chain, especially the auto and the auto plants manufacturing businesses are open. beer manufacturing is back online. The plants were deemed - but, you know, there's a lot of restrictions still in place. And this just points out the confusing and mixed messaging that we're getting from the government. On the one hand, officially now this week ended the two-month-long safe distancing orders. But then the government began this color-coded system to show off when things can really open up. Red means there are still a high number of cases in the city, so you keep closed. And green means you're all good to go. But when you look at the map of Mexico that health officials put out, nearly every state in the country except for one is red. And the other day, the president said Mexico had tamed the virus. Today, he said, we have to be careful so a new outbreak doesn't happen. The original outbreak is still raging.
MCCAMMON: And, Phil, we just heard Carrie talking about mixed messages from the government in Mexico. That seems to be the case in Brazil as well, with President Bolsonaro brazenly flouting social distancing guidelines. I imagine he's also motivated by a desire not to have the economy collapse completely.
REEVES: Oh, yes, he is. And, you know, you can see why. We found out today that in April, Brazil's industrial output fell by a record-breaking 18%. Many millions of Brazilians, as in the United States, are suffering the loss of jobs and incomes, especially those in the informal sector. So, you know, it's understandable the president would want to get his economy going. But less easy to understand is the way that Bolsonaro has scoffed at the virus as a - what he called a little flu or the way he's very publicly very deliberately violated the rules of social distancing. He's shown very little sympathy for the families of Brazilians killed by this virus. Yesterday, though, he actually did express regret. But then he added that death is everyone's destiny in the end, a remark to which his opponents respond, well, actually, death from coronavirus doesn't have to be your destiny if you have a government that enforces the right preventative measures.
MCCAMMON: And, Phil, I have to ask you. Over the weekend, the White House announced it was sending Brazil 2 million doses of the drug hydroxychloroquine that the president has been a fan of. Our own FDA has warned against its use either as a prophylactic or treatment for the coronavirus. How did Brazilians respond to this gift?
REEVES: Actually, this is a very political issue here. Bolsonaro's lost two health ministers within the last two months. He fired one, the other quit. Both went partly because they disagreed with Bolsonaro's obsession with chloroquine. And Bolsonaro's a populist, as you know, like Trump. And his critics think that he's offering up this drug as a kind of quick fix because it allows him to say, look, I have the answer here, but the governors and mayors in Brazil, they aren't listening. So this catastrophe is their fault, not mine. And his opponents, who are growing in number right now, see that, and they aren't impressed by this gift from the White House.
MCCAMMON: And I want to quickly ask each of you, what other hotspots are you watching in the region? Carrie.
KAHN: Quickly I'd say - note - looking in Central America, Nicaragua, the president there has done nothing to mitigate the pandemic. Schools are still in session. And the Pan American Health Organization is very concerned about the spread of the disease there. And in El Salvador, which has had the strictest quarantine rules, those measures are set to be lifted as soon as this weekend.
MCCAMMON: Phil, quickly.
REEVES: Venezuela - we don't know what's really happening in Venezuela, and it's a big, big concern.
MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Philip Reeves and NPR's Carrie Kahn.
Thank you both so much.
KAHN: You're welcome.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.