NOEL KING, HOST:
The U.S. is leading the world in COVID-19 cases - more than 3 1/2 million. Other countries are seeing surges, too. India, for example, just hit a new record - a million cases. Here's virologist Shahid Jameel talking to India Today.
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SHAHID JAMEEL: The only way we are going to control this is to follow physical distancing, is to - everyone to wear a mask in public. That's the only way.
KING: We're going to hear now from three regions where people are asking the same questions we are - did leaders lift restrictions too soon? Were they tough enough to begin with? Philip Reeves covers South America, Jane Arraf covers the Middle East, and Eyder Peralta covers East Africa. Hey, everyone.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, there.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
KING: Eyder, let me start with you. You're in Nairobi. The African continent, of course, is massive, but it has not ranked among the worst-hit regions in the world. However, if you look at COVID data from Johns Hopkins, South Africa in particular is not doing so well. It's sixth in the world. What's happening in South Africa?
PERALTA: Yeah. I mean - so it wasn't very long ago that we were talking about how well South Africa was doing. They went into a strict lockdown very early. They successfully flattened their curve. But the government says this is a new phase. The economy is hurting, and the virus is widespread. So a new lockdown, they said, would cause more harm than good. The president said it is now up to individual South Africans to lower the infection rate by wearing masks and avoiding crowds. But this is actually what South African scientists had modeled a while back. The lockdown, they say, was just to buy time. They say it let them learn about the virus, build hospitals, get the right medicines. And because of that, they say, the death rate in South Africa is about 1%, which is among the lowest in the world. So the cases, they say, will rise exponentially. And as you noted, South Africa has already taken over Mexico and the U.K. But the hope is that the deaths will not rise in the same manner. But there is no doubt that this is a huge gamble for South Africa.
KING: There's a lot of risk involved in what you've just said, but you have talked about how the government prepared first.
Jane, you're in Amman, Jordan. The government there has declared some successes. Tell us about what's going on in Jordan. Is it real success or just kind of success for now?
ARRAF: Well, it's really interesting 'cause Jordan now is down to no local transmission cases on most days. But that's...
ARRAF: ...After really strict lockdown. Yeah. So that's kind of a success. And inside - it feels kind of normal inside the country. People are in restaurants again. They're in shopping malls. But Jordan's worried about opening up to other countries, for instance Iraq. It shares a border with Iraq and Saudi Arabia, both with really high cases of infection. And in Iraq, which has more than 2,000 new cases a day, the health system just can't cope. It's not just a shortage of beds; it's a shortage of things like oxygen even.
KING: And then, Phil, Brazil is a country much like the United States, where its - worries are less that it is a small place and it has a lot of people coming over the border. It is a massive country. It is second, at this point, only to the U.S. in terms of cases. And interestingly, its president, Jair Bolsonaro, was openly dismissive of COVID, and then he got it. What is he saying now?
REEVES: Well, he hasn't changed. He's still downplaying this virus, and his government still has no coordinated response to it. And because of that, Brazilians are still getting very mixed messages. You know, the governors and mayors started out urging them to stay home and closing down cities. Now many of them have begun opening up shop again, including the big cities, Rio and Sao Paolo. As in the U.S., medical experts are saying it's too early to do this, and they warn that it could cause a second wave. So the picture's chaotic; it's grim.
Right now the virus is still spreading in some areas - for example, the south - and ebbing in others. But overall, Brazil's hit a kind of alarmingly high plateau in which it's averaging just over 1,000 registered deaths a day. It's also reporting a high level of new cases. Yesterday, there were 44,000 infections in 24 hours. And a lot of Brazilians blame Bolsonaro's reckless response for this terrible crisis they're suffering.
KING: I want to ask you, Jane, about mixed messages from government, which Phil mentioned. You cover some countries where there are two challenges. No. 1, information is very hard to get. And No. 2, war and poverty that comes with war have made a lot of people very vulnerable. What information have you managed to pull together?
ARRAF: So I think we should mention Egypt probably, just because it's a huge population that has very high rates of infection. And there, because so many people are living in poverty, they don't have the luxury of being able to do social distancing or work from home. The government there is also quite repressive, so figures there are underreported, as they are in a lot of other countries. Now we're seeing, though, even countries with the highest infection rates, like Iran for instance, reopening their economy because they say if they don't, there simply won't be enough food even to go around. People will literally go hungry.
And it's not just poor countries. Saudi Arabia, which is also believed to be underreporting cases like a lot of countries are, a rich country, obviously, a large country - but it relies a lot on foreign laborers. And that's where a lot of the infections are coming from because they're stuck in cramped dormitories, and there's very little way to do social distancing there.
KING: Eyder, I want to ask you about your base in Kenya. The government there initially had a very strict lockdown which seems to have worked, as it did in other countries. Is the Kenyan government able to stick to that, or do they have economic concerns, too?
PERALTA: They do have lots of economic concerns. And look; I mean, it feels like a really weird time here because, not long ago, you know, we would get a couple of dozen cases a day. And health officials, they would trace every single contact and put them into quarantine centers. But now we're seeing more than 400 cases a day. But at the same time, the government is opening up the country. Domestic flights are in the air again. Churches are open. We're also getting reports that even with just 11,000 cases here, hospitals are already struggling. The quarantine centers are full, so people are being asked to isolate at home. So it just feels - it feels like there's two contradictory things happening. Right? It feels like the pandemic is getting serious. But on the other hand, the government is opening up.
KING: Phil, weak health systems are a concern, so, in Brazil, is the fact that there are many poor people. So you have this same kind of dynamic that we're seeing elsewhere.
REEVES: Yes, indeed. And the number of poor people is going to soar. There are already more than 40 million Brazilians living in poverty. They're predominately Black and mixed-race. They're disproportionately hit by this virus. Before all this started, Brazil had deep-rooted social and racial inequalities, and this pandemic is going to make that a lot worse.
KING: NPR's Philip Reeves, Jane Arraf and Eyder Peralta - thank you all.
PERALTA: Thank you, Noel.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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