People are seen at a popular street market known locally as a tianguis in  Mexico City on July 2, 2020 as the country authorized the reopening of restaurants, shops, street markets and sport complexes.
Mexico City CNN  — 

More than 121,000 people have died of the coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

By October 1, that number could increase by more than 300,000.

That was the headline at this week’s press briefing by the Pan American Health Organization, citing modeling by the University of Washington that predicts more than 438,000 total deaths across the region through the end of September. That means, on average, nearly 3,500 people could die of the virus every day between now and then.

The model’s creators say they assumed countries in the projection will follow social distancing guidelines. And if prevention measures weaken, deaths could be even higher.

It’s just the latest bad news out of the part of the world arguably facing the bleakest outlook as a result of this pandemic.

Big populations, big problems

The eight most populous countries in Latin America and the Caribbean – Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Chile and Ecuador – make up more than 82% of the region’s population.

So, it’s not surprising that these countries are driving the exponential growth in both coronavirus cases and deaths.

Of the region’s 33 total countries, these eight countries make up 94% of total cases and 96% of total deaths.

Brazil is far and away the single worst offender. Its recorded cases and deaths – 1,496,858 and 61,884, respectively, as of Thursday – keep climbing. Its seven-day moving average of newly confirmed cases is as high as it’s ever been. Reporting more than 40,000 new cases in a day is no longer unusual.

Despite that, the economy has begun to substantively reopen in many parts of the country where it had been previously shut down. In Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, bars and restaurants were allowed to open at 50% capacity.

In Mexico, the reopening of the economy has also taken center stage. In Mexico City, by far the hardest hit part of the country, patrons enjoyed cocktails and appetizers at restaurants this week for the first time since March 23. Hotels, salons and markets are now allowed to open as well.

This despite the fact the death toll stands at 21,189 as of Thursday evening. That death toll is roughly double what it was one month ago and is now higher than Spain’s.

The actual deaths due to the virus are likely even greater. In an interview with the Washington Post, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Health Hugo López-Gatell said a soon-to-be-published government report suggests there were three times as many deaths in Mexico City from March through May as would be expected in a normal year. He told the paper that of those extra deaths, “…it’s probable that the majority are covid.”

Smaller countries in the region have generally fared much better in containing their outbreaks. Uruguay and Paraguay have less than 50 deaths combined. Belize has only recorded 28 total cases since the outbreak began.

But health officials are concerned about some of the other smaller countries like Costa Rica, which has seen its case total more than double in the last month. The Pan American Health Organization says new cases there may not peak until October.

The broad toll of the outbreak

The economic outlook in Latin America and the Caribbean were not great before the pandemic arrived. It’s gotten so much worse since.

The International Monetary Fund predicts the combined GDP in the region and the Caribbean will shrink by 9.4% in 2020. That is four points worse than its prediction from April and would be the worst such recession since record keeping began.

Even countries that were largely spared the worst of the pandemic’s health effects won’t be able to avoid the consequences.

Many island nations in the Caribbean have limited case numbers but will see massive hits to their economies as tourism, the lifeblood for many of them, drops precipitously.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Latin America and the Caribbean could see record unemployment numbers as a result of the pandemic. More than 41 million people could be unemployed in 2020, according to a new report from the International Labor Organization, a nearly 60% rise over 2019.

Some of those unemployed will come from the airline industry, with the region’s carriers among the worst hit in the world.

Mexican carrier Aeromexico filed for bankruptcy this week, the third airline in the region to do so since the outbreak began, joining LatAm Airlines and Avianca Airlines.

And from the economy to the environment, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research recorded more fires in the Amazon this June than any previous June since 2007.

Forest fires might not seem directly connected to a deadly virus. But environmental activists have warned that illegal loggers and ranchers have taken advantage of limited official resources during the pandemic, burning large swaths of forest for financial gain.

Signs of hope

Peru and Chile have recorded the sixth and seventh most confirmed cases of the virus worldwide, with a combined total of nearly 600,000.

But after months of grim news, both countries sounded a more hopeful tone this week.

In Chile, Wednesday marked the lowest single-day rise in new cases since May 19. The country’s seven-day average has also dropped significantly since its peak on June 21.

Bergut Funeral Services employees deliver coffins to a funeral store in Santiago, Chile, on  June 19, 2020. Coffin production has increased 120%, according to owner Nicolas Bergerie.

“On a national level, the data are good,” said Chile’s Health Minister Enrique Paris. “The country still has a fever, but the fever is much lower,” he continued, referring to the improving number of infections.

On Thursday, Peru marked its sixth consecutive day when the number of people discharged from hospitals was higher than the number of new cases.

Peru’s Health Ministry said in a statement that Thursday was “…one of its best dates in the fight against the pandemic.”