An employee digs next to relatives of a COVID-19 victim, at the Vila Formosa cemetery on the outskirts of Sao Paulo on May 20, 2020

Washington (AFP) - The World Health Organization declared Latin America “a new epicenter” of the coronavirus pandemic Friday as US President Donald Trump demanded churches reopen despite the ongoing COVID-19 threat.

China meanwhile warned that its economy will suffer an immense hit from the coronavirus and Beijing’s communist rulers for the first time in decades decided not to declare a target for growth, underscoring the setback from the pandemic.

Surges in infections across much of Central and South America continued to drive the global toll higher even as hard-hit nations in Europe, along with the United States, sought to move into a cautious recovery phase with new infections dipping.

Delegates donned masks during the opening session of China's National People's Congress

COVID-19 has killed more than 335,500 people since it surfaced in China late last year, according to an AFP tally at 1900 GMT, with more than 5.1 million declared cases in 196 countries and territories.

And even as China claims to have the virus under control, Premier Li Keqiang told hundreds of mask-wearing representatives at the National People’s Congress that the pandemic brought “great uncertainty” to the country’s huge economy.

- Young Brazilians hit hard -

Brazil this week become the latest flashpoint as its death toll surged past 20,000 – and with 310,000 cases the Latin American giant is now the third most affected country behind the United States and Russia.

“In a sense, South America has become a new epicenter for the disease,” said WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan.

Grave diggers at a cemetery outside Brazil's Sao Paulo -- WHO has warned that South America is a new epicenter

“Clearly there is a concern across many of those countries, but clearly the most affected is Brazil at this point,” he said.

Most of Brazil’s cases are in densely populated Sao Paulo, but the highest rate of infection is in the state of Amazonas, at about 490 people infected per 100,000 population, he said.

World toll of coronavirus infections and deaths as of May 22 at 1900 GMT

Unlike in Europe and the United States, where the elderly were hardest-hit, in Brazil a significant number of deaths are among younger people, who are often driven by poverty to work despite the dangers.

“Since Brazil has a younger population, it’s normal for the number of cases to be higher among under-60s,” said Mauro Sanchez, an epidemiologist at the University of Brasilia.

“What’s perverse is that a lot of the people who are exposing themselves to the virus are doing it because they don’t have a choice,” said Sanchez.

As the toll mounts, grave-diggers at a cemetery outside Sao Paulo were scrambling to keep up.

“We’ve been working 12-hour days, burying them one after the other. It doesn’t stop,” said one worker at Vila Formosa, wearing a white protective suit, mask and face shield.

- ‘More prayer’ -

An outdoor, drive-in church service forced by the coronavirus pandemic in April at the First Baptist Church in Plaistow, New Hampshire

In Washington President Trump, facing an uphill battle to be reelected in November, continued to pressure state and local governments to reopen the American economy – even as the toll continues to rise in the world’s hardest-hit country, where COVID-19 had claimed almost 96,000 lives as of Friday according to Johns Hopkins University.

Trump demanded state governors classify churches, synagogues and mosques as “essential services” on the same level as food and drug stores, and immediately allow them to hold services despite COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

“The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, for this weekend,” said the president – who counts religious conservatives as a core of his electoral base.

“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.”

As governors generally have the power to order openings and closings, it was not clear whether Trump had any authority to force them to remove restrictions on worship services.

But Trump has previously given his support to street protests demanding the end of lockdown measures.

- Quarantines… and festivals -

Britain confirmed it would impose a 14-day quarantine on international arrivals in addition to its ongoing social distancing rules

As US states begin to emerge gradually from lockdown, governments elsewhere were still struggling to balance measures to halt the virus – and head off a feared possible second wave of infections – with moves to reopen their battered economies.

Britain confirmed Friday that it would impose a 14-day quarantine on international arrivals in addition to its ongoing social distancing rules.

Serbia said one of Europe’s biggest music events, the Exit Festival in Novi Sad, could go ahead in August as planned, and in Italy Florence’s famous Duomo cathedral reopened to the public.

France decided that it was safe to hold a delayed second round of municipal elections on June 28, and the Czech Republic said the epidemic remains contained there, two weeks after shopping malls, cinemas and restaurant terraces reopened.

Russia has predicted a "significant mortality increase in May"

But in Russia authorities reported the highest ever daily death toll of 150, suggesting COVID-19 is not yet under control in the world’s biggest country by area.

“There will be a significant mortality increase in May,” Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova told a government meeting, vowing that doctors would try to “save the maximum number of patients.”

“The seriously ill are building up. Doctors try to save each one who lies there for two, three or more weeks… unfortunately it’s not possible to save them all,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said.

Russia has so far recorded 3,249 deaths – with a caseload of more 325,000 infections, second only to the United States – but government critics claimed the death figures are vastly understated.

“Amazing, isn’t it? Just two days ago this same Golikova said the epidemic had almost passed,” tweeted Kira Yarmysh, spokeswoman for leading opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

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