South American football off as coronvirus tightens grip

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Soldiers assist health personnel in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on March 17, 2020 after two new cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed

South American football's governing body postponed its flagship Copa America contest Tuesday as Brazil recorded its first coronavirus death in an escalating outbreak that has begun to grip the continent as tightly as other devastated regions.

Although the pandemic was initially slower to take hold in Latin countries than other parts of the world, Brazil, Chile and Peru are now reporting hundreds of cases as life in hard-hit towns and cities grinds to a halt.

CONMEBOL said the month-long 2020 Copa America would be delayed until 2021, shortly after UEFA announced the same decision for the European Championships.

"It's an extraordinary measure due to an unexpected situation, and therefore responds to the fundamental need to avoid an exponential evolution of the virus," CONMEBOL said of the decision to put off the June 12 kick-off.

The tournament -- set to be played in Argentina and Colombia -- is now rescheduled to run from June 11-July 11, 2021.

The championships were the latest in a string of major sporting events to be halted or postponed over the pandemic, which has killed more than 7,800 people and infected almost 200,000 worldwide.

Shortly after the postponement of the Copa America, Argentina's league also suspended play, meaning all major football competition in South America has been shut down.

Costa Rica also suspended its football championship and announced it would shut its national parks to visitors from March 23 to April 13.

- 'Hysteria' -

Away from the sporting arena, Chile was studying the possibility of pushing back its April 26 referendum on changing the dictatorship-era constitution, and upcoming elections in Bolivia on May 3 could be called into question.

Brazil confirmed its first COVID-19 death as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency.

Yet President Jair Bolsonaro continued to buck the global trend towards increased vigilance, condemning the "hysteria" over the pandemic.

Brazil -- the largest country in Latin America, with 210 million people -- has confirmed more than 300 coronavirus infections concentrated in Sao Paulo and Rio, including its first fatal case -- a 62-year-old man who had underlying health problems.

"People are acting like it's the end of the world," the far-right Bolsonaro told Radio Tupi.

That came after Sao Paulo mayor Bruno Covas told CBN radio that the latest death "shows how severe this pandemic is, despite what some would like to believe."

As part of new measures taken to reduce spread of the virus, Rio closed two of its most iconic attractions: the Christ the Redeemer statue and the Sugarloaf Mountain cable car.

Brazilian authorities said they had recaptured 444 inmates who escaped from minimum security prisons in a row over temporary furlough leave, which had been suspended due to the health crisis.

In Argentina, which has registered two COVID-19 deaths, the government has suspended domestic flights, long-haul bus trips and trains for five days while neighboring Bolivia shuts its borders to foreigners from Thursday.

- 'Health comes first' -

In Chile, different political factions and medical authorities said they were studying the possibility of suspending April's referendum.

The government of right-wing President Sebastian Pinera agreed to hold the vote on changing the three-decade-old constitution following months of street protests against inequality.

"We're ready to review the constitutional reform referendum on April 26, including its eventual postponement to a fixed, concrete date," said Heraldo Munoz, the president of the opposition Party for Democracy.

"The people's health comes first."

Workers in several Santiago shopping malls held protests demanding they be shut down because staff are being exposed to a coronavirus risk from shoppers.

"If it is supposed to be something so extreme, why don't they close the mall?" storeworker Ingrid Vargas told AFP.