By Anthony Esposito
MEXICO CITY, June 24 (Reuters) - The death toll from the coronavirus in Latin America is expected to skyrocket to 388,300 by October, with Brazil and Mexico seen accounting for two-thirds of fatalities as other nations in the region contain their outbreaks, researchers said on Wednesday.
The region has emerged as a new global hotspot for the fast-spreading pandemic as deaths surpassed 100,000 this week and cases have tripled from 690,000 one month ago to 2 million.
High poverty levels and large informal sectors - which mean many workers cannot afford to quarantine - have combined with overcrowding in cities and inadequate public healthcare, particularly in isolated rural communities, to hamstring Latin America's fight to stem the contagion.
Brazil is expected to exceed 166,000 deaths and Mexico 88,000, according to the forecast from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru are each forecast to see over 10,000 fatalities, while 15 nations including Paraguay, Uruguay and Belize are seen with fewer than 1,000 deaths each.
"Several Latin American countries are facing explosive trajectories, while others are containing infections effectively," said IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray.
IHME researchers warned that the loss of life could surge even higher than the already-grim forecast if mandates on mask wearing and social distancing are relaxed.
In a worst-case scenario, the COVID-19 death toll could climb to 340,476 people in Brazil and 151,433 people in Mexico, the report said.
The leaders of Brazil and Mexico have been chastised for not taking the virus seriously enough and pushing for a reopening of their economies before the virus has been tamed.
"Brazil is at a grim tipping point. ... Unless and until the government takes sustained and enforced measures to slow transmission, the nation will continue its tragic upward trajectory of infections and deaths," Murray said.
As Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has continued to downplay the seriousness of the health crisis, Latin America's largest nation has tallied nearly 1.2 million cases and 53,830 deaths.
Transmission could be cut in half in communities where people are wearing masks when leaving their homes, according to the IHME.
"Increased testing and use of masks are important tools in reducing the toll of this pandemic in Mexico, in addition to keeping healthy distance," said Dr. Rafael Lozano, director of Health Systems at IHME.
If mask use rises to 95%, Brazil could see as few as 147,431 deaths and Mexico's forecasted death toll could fall to 79,652, the researchers said. (Reporting by Anthony Esposito Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.