Honduras begins reopening economy despite coronavirus risk to health system

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Honduras on Monday began gradually reopening its economy after almost three months of paralysis during the coronavirus pandemic, even as some doctors warned the healthcare system may be overloaded.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Africa, Cuba and Haiti who are stranded in Honduras after borders were closed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, board a bus going towards to a shelter, during their trek northward in an attempt to reach the U.S., in Tegucigalpa, Honduras June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera/File Photo

The Central American nation imposed a nationwide curfew in mid-March, closing shops, industries and public offices. So far Honduras has registered 258 deaths caused by virus.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez lamented “thousands” of businesses already shuttered in a pre-recorded television address on Monday.

“The economy could not stay closed any longer,” said Hernandez, adding that a 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. curfew will be maintained.

About 500,000 jobs have been lost or suspended during the quarantine, according to the Honduran Private Enterprise Council (COHEP). The central bank expects the economy to shrink between 2.9-3.9% this year after growing 2.7% in 2019.

Initially, only 20% of the workforce is expected to return to their jobs in the capital Tegucigalpa, according to the government’s re-opening plan, as well as the northern regions that have been coronavirus infection hotspots. In other areas 40-60% of workers are expected to return.

Officials say the reopening will be paused if there are new outbreaks.

But the plans have alarmed some doctors who predict Honduras’ underfunded healthcare system will struggle to cope.

The National Cardio Pulmonary Institute, a hospital where COVID-19 patients are treated, is at 94% capacity, according to Suyapa Sosa, president of a physicians association.

Another specialist hospital, Escuela Universitario, had to set up a tent to deal with overflow patients.

“We’ll be opening up the economy at a bad time when hospitals are on the verge of collapse due to the coronavirus,” said Carlos Umana, president of the Medical Association of the Honduran Social Security Institute.

Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Grant McCool