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Brazil corona virus: Rio reopens as experts warn that the worst is yet to come



“My crew and I are happy to be back at work,” he told CNN about his place called Cabanna, which serves snacks, sandwiches, and cocktails. “It will be different with all the precautions we have to take, table spacing, number of people sitting together, but it feels good to work again.”

Assy said he had barely avoided bankruptcy, fired four of his eleven employees, and frozen or cut salaries for the remaining seven when Rio de Janeiro ordered all but essential businesses to close in March to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“Another month like this and I would have to close completely,” he said. “Today I’m more afraid to stay at home and not work than I am about the corona virus.”

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Like many cities in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is easing restrictions under the pressure of growing unemployment and the fuel economy – despite warnings from experts that the city of Covid-19 has so far not been under control.

As of Thursday, restaurants, bars and gyms were allowed to reopen according to new health guidelines that required the wearing of masks and social distance. The first day there were few customers on the waterfront, although it was unclear whether this was due to the weather or the still very present fear of the coronavirus, which experts say may not peak in Brazil until mid-August .

At the end of May, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) calculated that the pandemic in Rio would peak in the following month and recommended that measures for social isolation be maintained.

On June 2, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella announced a plan to gradually ease restrictions, beginning with the reopening of car dealerships and home furnishings stores. Then came the trade, shopping centers and some public spaces.

A month later, the death toll from Covid-19 rose 70% to 6,550, and the total number of infections in the city rose nearly 50% to 57,879, according to the Rio State Minister of Health. And while the number of deaths in the second half of the month was slightly lower at 1,303 compared to 1,372, the number of new cases was 16% higher at 13,675.

After the United States, Brazil has the second highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide. As of Thursday, there were more than 60,000 deaths and 1.4 million confirmed cases of the virus.

Another city regrets it

However, plans to reopen remain unchanged. Experts warn that Rio could follow in the footsteps of other Brazilian cities that moved too quickly to open and then close again.

Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais, one of the first Brazilian capitals to quarantine, began reopening its economy in late May. But this week, non-essential activities were discontinued as the number of deaths and hospitalizations increased.

According to Roberto Medronho, epidemiologist at the UFRJ and one of the inventors of the “covidimeter”, a tool for calculating the transmission rate, the fact that the virus spread as a relaxation of restrictions in Rio was no accident. On June 7, the capital had a transfer rate of 1.03. Three weeks later, the transfer rate was 1.46.

“This shows that the decision to expand the reopening was based on economic and non-scientific criteria,” Medronho told CNN.

Covid-19 has hit the Brazilian economy hard, although President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the effects of the virus by insisting that hunger and unemployment could kill more people than the pandemic. While a large majority of Brazilians initially advocated the closing of nonessential businesses, Bolsonaro’s message has been increasingly well received.
According to the Brazilian Bureau of Statistics, IBGE, which was released this week, around 7.8 million Brazilians lost their jobs between March and May. The agency said that for the first time since data collection began, less than half the working age population actually worked. The exact number was 49.5%.

Economists predict a historic recession due to Covid-19. The Brazilian central bank estimated a 6.4% decline in GDP this year, while the International Monetary Fund is more pessimistic and the economy will shrink by 9.1% in 2020.

Rios Crivella said his decisions were made after talking to his scientific committee that it found that gyms, bars, and restaurants could be reopened as the death rate slowed and the percentage of beds in the intensive care unit also decreased .

At the beginning of June, 90% of the beds in the intensive care unit in Rio were occupied. This week the rate had dropped to 69%. However, experts say that this shouldn’t be the only statistic used for decision making.

“Governors and mayors opened field hospitals and bought ventilators, and the numbers improved,” said Domingos Alves, a computer modeling expert with the Covid-19 Brasil group, which brings together scientists from several Brazilian universities.

“However, this has a limit: Doctors are not as available as beds, and there is no way to increase this capacity indefinitely. Just using ICU beds as the basis for reopening is a trick with to which the population is reassured. “

Alves said plans to open soccer games in the city next week will only worsen the already delicate situation.

The city of Belo Horizonte justified its decision to reopen at the end of May, including the occupation of beds in the intensive care unit, a decision that Mayor Alexandre Kalil now regrets.

“What we do as a country is buying more beds. It was a mistake to think that this would solve the problem. Now we have to close again in Belo Horizonte because the cases have skyrocketed. I see this drama as a war and in a war you are constantly changing your strategy, “Kalil said in an interview.

By the end of May, the number of hospital beds in Belo Horizonte had quadrupled since the pandemic started, and Kalil has opened retail stores and beauty salons.

In contrast to Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte did not allow the reopening of shopping centers, churches and parks. Within a month, however, the number of cases increased from 1,852 to 4,942 and the death toll rose from 49 to 106. Earlier this week, 92% of intensive care beds were occupied.

Kalil reintroduced social isolation measures on June 26th. He said they would be kept going for at least two weeks.

“You can’t say that everything is OK when the media reports that the death toll in the country has exceeded 60,000. In Belo Horizonte we are not flat-earners. The closing or opening depends on science and numbers,” he said.

Scientists from the Covid-19 Brasil group predict that cities loosening their social detachment measures may see a 150% increase in the number of registered cases of Covid-19 over the next two weeks.

“Governors and mayors are sending the population to the slaughterhouse with the prerogative of economic recovery,” said Domingos Alves.

CNN’s Mallory Gafas contributed to this report.


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