Major Brazilian cities set lockdowns as virus spreads

BRASILIA (Reuters) - São Luis became Brazil’s first major city to begin a coronavirus “lockdown” on Tuesday with another, Fortaleza, saying it would follow suit on Friday, as local health services struggle to cope with the pandemic.

Tuesday’s lockdown measure covers São Luis and parts of three other municipalities with a total population of around 1.3 million people in the poor northeastern state of Maranhão. It forbids people from going outside except to obtain groceries, medications or cleaning supplies.

Maranhão has not felt the brunt of the crisis, in contrast to the populous southeastern states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and the interior state of Amazonas, where hospitals are overwhelmed and authorities have resorted to burying victims in mass graves.

But with 4,227 confirmed cases and 249 deaths, Brazil’s poorest state is still dealing with a significant caseload.

On Friday, Fortaleza in Ceara state, among the hardest-hit of all Brazilian cities, will enter a 20-day lockdown period, authorities there announced on Tuesday.

The two cities’ attempts to implement stricter confinement measures run counter to loosening elsewhere in the country even as the virus’ spread shows little sign of slowing.

Brazil is by far the hardest-hit nation in Latin America, with 105,222 confirmed cases and 7,288 deaths as of Monday, according to the Health Ministry.

Maranhão Governor Flavio Dino of the Brazilian Communist Party told Reuters that 95% of intensive care beds in state-run public hospitals in the area under lockdown are occupied.

“We’re doing a preventative lockdown,” Dino said. “We aren’t dealing with chaos, but what we were observing is that demand was growing quickly and was above our expansion capacity for beds and health professionals.”

The lockdown, which lasts until May 14, was mandated by a court, but has the support of the governor. It comes as support for social and business restrictions has slipped in Brazil as a whole, with President Jair Bolsonaro downplaying the danger of the virus and focusing on its economic impact.

While Bolsonaro has compared the virus to “a little flu,” the reaction of Brazil’s 27 state and district governments has varied widely.

Most have imposed business restrictions of some sort, in which non-essential services and commerce are forbidden, while stopping short of mandating an official lockdown, which would limit people’s movement. In some areas, enforcement has been spotty, and shops have remained open despite official decrees.

While Brazilians initially supported nationwide social isolation measures by wide margins, polls have showed support slowly slipping, with one late April poll showing a statistical tie between those who favor a generalized quarantine and those who favor allowing low-risk individuals to return to work.

Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Writing by Gram Slattery; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Dan Grebler