RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil is emerging as potentially the next big hot spot for the coronavirus amid President Jair Bolsonaro's insistence that it is just a "little flu'' and that there is no need for the sharp restrictions that have slowed the infection's spread in Europe and the U.S.
As some U.S. states and European countries moved gradually Monday to ease their limits on movement and commerce, the intensifying outbreak in Brazil, Latin America's biggest country, with 211 million people pushed some hospitals to the breaking point, with signs that a growing number of victims are now dying at home.
"We have all the conditions here for the pandemic to become much more serious," said Paulo Brandao, a virologist at the University of Sao Paulo.
Brazil officially reported about 4,500 deaths and almost 67,000 confirmed infections. But the true numbers there, as in many other countries, are believed to be vastly higher given the lack of testing and the many people without severe symptoms who haven't sought hospital care.
Some scientists said over 1 million in Brazil are probably infected. The country is heading into winter, which can worsen respiratory illnesses.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has disputed the seriousness of the coronavirus and said people need to resume their lives to prevent an economic meltdown. But most state governors in the country have adopted restrictions to slow the spread and pushed people to stay at home.
In mid-April, Bolsonaro fired his popular health minister after a series of disagreements over efforts to contain the virus, replacing him with an advocate for reopening the economy. Residents protested, leaning out their windows to bang pots and pans.
Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or too overwhelmed to take any more patients.
Officials in Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America, a tightly packed metropolitan area of over 21 million residents, many living in poverty have issued death certificates over the past two weeks for 236 people who succumbed at home, double the number before the outbreak, according to the SAMU paramedic service.
Manaus, an Amazon city of 1.8 million, recorded 142 deaths on Sunday, the most yet, including 41 who died at home. In the main cemetery, workers have been digging mass graves. Brazil's funeral industry warned last week that the city was running out of coffins and "there could soon be corpses left on corners.''