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Record virus infections, deaths are ravaging Latin America

Homeless people living in tents under a bridge in Cape Town, South Africa, Friday, May 22, 2020, after being transported from a closed shelter to another unfinished shelter. (AP Photo)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A surging coronavirus is ravaging parts of Latin America, setting records for cases and deaths Friday in some countries in the world’s most unequal region even as the pandemic’s march slows in much of Europe, Asia and the United States.

Latin America’s two largest nations — Mexico and Brazil — reported record numbers of infections and deaths almost daily this week, fueling criticism of their presidents, who have slow-walked shutdowns in an attempt to limit economic damage.

Brazil reported more than 330,000 confirmed cases as of Friday, surpassing Russia to become the nation with the second-highest number of infections, behind only the U.S., according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Brazil also has recorded more than 21,000 deaths, though experts believe the true numbers are higher.

The virus “does not forgive,” Uber driver Bruno Almeida de Mello said at the burial of his grandmother Vandelma Rosa, 66, in Rio de Janeiro. “It does not choose race or if you are rich or poor, black or white. It’s a cruel disease.”

De Mello said his grandmother’s death certificate reads “suspected of COVID-19,” but the hospital didn’t have the tests necessary to confirm it. That means her death was not counted in the official toll.

Experts said the surging deaths across Latin America showed the limits of government action in a region where millions have informal jobs and many police forces are weak or corrupt and unable to enforce restrictions. Infections also rose and intensive-care units were swamped in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, countries lauded for imposing early and aggressive business shutdowns and quarantines.

Even in countries where cases are rising, many governments say they need to focus on jobs that are vanishing as quickly as the virus spreads.

In the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, unemployment is soaring. The chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve has estimated that as many as 1 in 4 Americans could be jobless. In China, analysts estimate around a third of the urban workforce is unemployed.

In the U.S., public health officials are warning people to follow social distancing and other anti-virus measures as they head into a three-day holiday weekend that honors the country’s military dead. Millions are expected to emerge from lockdowns and head to beaches and parks, raising concerns about new outbreaks.

Meanwhile, the virus is roaring through other countries far more ill-equipped to handle the pandemic, with scientists worried that new cases will fan the embers of a second global wave of infections.

India saw its biggest single-day spike since the pandemic began, and Pakistan and Russia recorded their highest death tolls. Most new Indian cases are in Bihar, where thousands returned home from jobs in cities.

Russian state news agencies reported the authoritarian leader of the southern region of Chechnya was taken to a Moscow hospital with suspected COVID-19 symptoms. Ramzan Kadyrov has run predominantly Muslim Chechnya with an iron fist since 2007 and the Kremlin has relied on him to keep the North Caucasus region stable after two devastating separatist wars. The Chechen parliament speaker denied the reports, which cited an unidentified medical source.

Some Latin American leaders have downplayed the severity of the virus.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed back against state governors who tried to impose limits on people’s movements and commerce. Opposition lawmakers and other detractors have called for Bolsonaro’s impeachment and have alleged criminal mishandling of the response to the virus.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continued to travel the country after its first confirmed case. He let his health advisers take the lead on the crisis but kept insisting Mexico’s strong family bonds and work ethic would pull it through.

Mexico reported its highest one-day death toll so far, with 479 new fatalities Friday, up from the previous high Wednesday of 424. It also reported 2,960 new cases, capping a week in which daily confirmed infections have hit close to that number. However, the Health Department acknowledges that the real number is probably several times higher because of Mexico’s abysmally low testing rate.

At the San Cristobal Mauseleum in the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, manager Armando Sepulveda said his business has doubled in recent weeks.

“The crematoriums are saturated,” Sepulveda said. “All of the ovens don’t have that capacity.”

He said families scour the city “in desperation” looking for help with funeral services because hospitals cannot hold the dead for long.

The Mexican government has moved to restart the economy, allow mining, construction and parts of the North American automotive supply chain to resume operations this week. Analysts predict a massive contraction in an economy that had already entered a recession before the pandemic.

The virus reaches from megacities deep into the Amazon jungle.

The Colombian town of Leticia, which lies along the Amazon River at the border of Brazil and Peru, has nearly 1,300 cases. Residents reeling from the illness and a loss of income are placing red cloth flags outside homes with tin roofs to show they are going hungry.

Colombian authorities suggest Brazil is to blame for a sudden rise in infections, and President Iván Duque has militarized the shared border.

Colombia’s Ministry of Health reported its biggest daily increases Friday, with 801 new confirmed infections and 30 deaths. Nearly 20,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus in a country that has been locked down for nearly two months.

In Chile, more than 90% of intensive care beds were full last week in the capital, Santiago.

Ecuador’s government instituted a 2 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and other measures in March, but cases have swamped medical and mortuary services in the city of Guayaquil and now in the capital, Quito. Hundreds of people can be seen violating the curfew in Ecuador, many selling goods on the streets to earn enough to buy food.

News outlets showed images of patients slumped in wheelchairs receiving oxygen in Peru, where there are only 2.5 intensive-care beds per 100,000 people, one quarter of the global standard. The country had almost 109,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,100 dead as of Thursday night. Doctors say most of the patients are shopkeepers, taxi drivers or street vendors.

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Sherman reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker in Washington; Franklin Briceño in Lima, Peru; Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; and Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed.

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Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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