Gravediggers bury a man who died from Covid-19 at Sao Luiz cemetery, in Sao Paulo, Brazil – Reuters

Brazil’s death toll from the novel coronavirus has surged past 34,000 to become the third-highest in the world, surpassing Italy’s, according to official figures released on Thursday.

The South American country reported a new record of 1,473 deaths in 24 hours, bringing its overall toll to 34,021, behind only the United States and Britain.

Brazil has now confirmed 614,941 infections, the health ministry said – the second-largest caseload in the world, behind the US.

Experts say under-testing in Brazil means the real numbers are probably much higher.

The latest figures underlined the grim toll the virus is taking in Latin America, the latest epicenter in the pandemic.

Brazil, a country of 210 million people, has been the hardest-hit in the region.

Newly dug graves are seen at Sao Luiz cemetery where the administration says they recently dug 3000 new graves – Reuters

Since the beginning of the pandemic, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the virus, saying on Tuesday that death is “everyone’s destiny”, and that hunger and unemployment will ultimately prove more deadly.

Mr Bolsonaro has fiercely criticised coronavirus stay-at-home measures and has urged businesses to wage “war” on state governors who order business closures, arguing they are needlessly hurting Latin America’s biggest economy.

The grim milestone was reached as the  mayor of Rio de Janeiro allowed more than 10,000 street vendors to go back to work on Thursday.

Mayor Marcelo Crivella has also pushed for a reopening in recent weeks after local governments shutdown business to stem the spread. On Tuesday, the city of nearly 7 million people allowed residents  to exercise outside, while a small subset of shops was allowed to reopen.

On Thursday, Mr Crivella said over 10,000 street vendors could return to work.

“The other day, some kid told me: I prefer to die of coronavirus than see my family die of hunger,” Mr Crivella said.

Later in the day, during a Facebook Live session, Mr Bolsonaro encouraged the federal solicitor general to sue states to force them into reopening their beaches.

While state governors and leaders elsewhere in the region have generally taken the virus more seriously than Mr Bolsonaro, growing hunger and shaky public finances are pushing leaders throughout Latin America to reopen commerce, to the chagrin of many epidemiologists.

In Brazil, health officials say there are indications new hospitalisations are stabilising, but new deaths and confirmed cases are still growing rapidly.

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