By Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito
BRASILIA (Reuters) – President Jair Bolsonaro threatened on Friday to pull Brazil out of the World Health Organization after the U.N. agency warned Latin American governments about the risk of lifting lockdowns before slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus throughout the region.
A new Brazilian record for daily COVID-19 fatalities pushed the county’s death toll past that of Italy late on Thursday, but Bolsonaro continues to argue for quickly lifting state isolation orders, arguing that the economic costs outweigh public health risks.
Latin America’s most populous nations, Brazil and Mexico, are seeing the highest rates of new infections, though the pandemic is also gathering pace in countries such as Peru, Colombia, Chile and Bolivia.
Overall, more than 1.1 million Latin Americans have been infected. While most leaders have taken the pandemic more seriously than Bolsonaro, some politicians that backed strict lockdowns in March and April are pushing to open economies back up as hunger and poverty grow.
In an editorial running the length of newspaper Folha de S.Paulo’s front page, the Brazilian daily highlighted that just 100 days had passed since Bolsonaro described the virus now “killing a Brazilian per minute” as “a little flu.”
“While you were reading this, another Brazilian died from the coronavirus,” the newspaper said.
Brazil’s Health Ministry reported late on Thursday that confirmed cases in the country had climbed past 600,000 and 1,437 deaths had been registered within 24 hours, the third consecutive daily record.
Brazil reported another 1,005 deaths Friday night, while Mexico reported 625 additional deaths.
With more than 35,000 lives lost, the pandemic has killed more people in Brazil than anywhere outside of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Asked about efforts to loosen social distancing orders in Brazil despite rising daily death rates and diagnoses, World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Margaret Harris said a key criteria for lifting lockdowns was slowing transmission.
“The epidemic, the outbreak, in Latin America is deeply, deeply concerning,” she told a news conference in Geneva. Among six key criteria for easing quarantines, she said, “one of them is ideally having your transmission declining.”
In comments to journalists later Friday, Bolsonaro said Brazil will consider leaving the WHO unless it ceases to be a “partisan political organization.”
President Donald Trump, an ideological ally of Bolsonaro, said last month that the United States would end its own relationship with the WHO, accusing it of becoming a puppet of China, where the coronavirus first emerged.
Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the coronavirus risks to public health and efforts to lift state quarantines have drawn criticism from across the political spectrum in Brazil, where some accuse him of using the crisis to undermine democratic institutions.
But many of those critics are divided about the safety and effectiveness of anti-government demonstrations in the middle of a pandemic, especially after one small protest was met with an overwhelming show of police force last weekend.
Alfonso Vallejos Parás, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said infections are high in Latin America as the virus was slow to gain a foothold in the region.
“It is hard to estimate when the pace of infection will come down,” he said.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Ricardo Brito; Additional reporting by Gabriela Mello in Sao Paulo, Gram Slattery and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro and Adriana Barrera in Mexico City; Editing by Brad Haynes, Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)