WHO says South America a 'new epicentre' of pandemic; Africa tops 100,000 cases

WHO says South America a 'new epicentre' of pandemic; Africa tops 100,000 cases

South America has become a new epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic with Brazil hardest-hit, while cases are rising in some African countries that so far have a relatively low death toll, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.

"The COVID-19 pandemic today reached a milestone in Africa, with more than 100,000 confirmed cases," the WHO said in a statement, noting there were 3,100 confirmed deaths on the vast continent.

"The virus has now spread to every country in the continent since the first case was confirmed in the region 14 weeks ago."

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, who is from Botswana, said: "For now, COVID-19 has made a soft landfall in Africa, and the continent has been spared the high numbers of deaths which have devastated other regions of the world."

Even so, she said, "we must not be lulled into complacency as our health systems are fragile and are less able to cope with a sudden increase in cases."

A health worker sprays disinfectants in Nairobi, Kenya, on Friday. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Nine African countries had 50 per cent increases in cases in the past week, while others have seen a decline or have stable rates, said Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO's top emergencies expert.

The low mortality rate may be because half the continent's population is 18 or younger, he said, while saying he remains worried the disease will spread on a continent with "significant gaps" in intensive care services, medical oxygen and ventilation. About half of African countries are experiencing community transmission of the virus.

A heath worker collects a sample for COVID-19 testing in Katlehong, south of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday. (Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press)

The situation in South America appears graver. Ryan said: "In a sense, South America has become a new epicentre for the disease."

Brazil is the "most affected" South American country, and authorities there have approved broad use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19, he said.

He reiterated that clinical evidence does not support the drug's widespread use against the disease, given its potential side-effects.

As of Friday, Brazil had registered 330,890 coronavirus cases, passing Russia and now second only to the U.S. on the list of countries with the most cases.

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The country registered 1,001 daily coronavirus deaths on Friday, taking total deaths to 21,048, according to the Health Ministry.

However the true number — both of cases and deaths — is likely higher as Latin America's top economy has been slow to ramp up testing.

WATCH | Brazil's worsening COVID-19 crisis:

Brazil's worsening COVID-19 crisis SUMMARY: Brazil's already weak health-care system and an incoherent response from its political leaders to the COVID-19 pandemic have made it much more difficult for the country's hospitals to deal with the growing number of cases, says Oliver Stuenkel, a professor and author from the Getulio Vargas Foundation in  Sao Paulo. 6:42

Infections rose and intensive-care units were also swamped in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, countries lauded for imposing early and aggressive business shutdowns and quarantines.

Many experts said the rising death toll across Latin America showed the limits of government action in a region where millions labour in informal jobs and many police forces are weak or corrupt and unable to enforce restrictions.