EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article stated that there would be no air conditioning in Olympic Village. After pressure from the IOC, organizers reversed that decision, promising to provide free air conditioning in athletes' bedrooms at the athletes village. There has been no pressure from the IOC to confront the Zika Virus.
A major public-health crisis is stalking Brazil in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics, and it is spreading rapidly throughout the hemisphere. The Zika virus, delivered through mosquitos, has led to a sudden and staggering growth of brain disease in fetuses and newborns. As reported by the BBC, “There have been around 3,500 reported cases of microcephaly—babies born with tiny brains—in Brazil alone since October.”
This virus is believed to have arrived during the 2014 World Cup, carried by wealthy Polynesian tourists, but has nested and found purchase in Brazil because of the climate, a poor public-health system crippled by recession, and a substandard system of sanitation.
Thousands of births have already been affected by the Zika virus and that could mushroom into the hundreds of thousands, as it spreads across the Americas. But its roots lie in the devastating priorities that paved the way for Brazil to host both the World Cup and Olympics in such close proximity to one another. Juliana Barbassa, longtime Rio journalist and author of the utterly indispensable book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, said to me, “Rio de Janeiro government’s response to the spread of Zika has been slow and inadequate; support for families whose babies have suffered has been grossly inadequate. The state’s healthcare system (like its sewage system, its transportation system, etc.) was underfunded and under tremendous strain before preparations for the World Cup and the Olympics siphoned away public funds. The additional burden of hosting these mega-events, together with a deep recession and a slump in price of oil, has created a state of emergency. Hospitals have had to turn away all but the most extreme emergencies. Some even boarded their doors shut [my emphasis]. All this raises further questions about the spending goals and priorities of the state’s and the city’s authorities.”
The spread of the virus has created a scene out of some skewed version of the Old Testament. You have disease, locusts, and punishment from a wrathful God because of the hubris, greed, and corruption that went into hosting the two-year bacchanal otherwise known as the World Cup and the Olympics. Yet the wages of sin have devastated those who had nothing to do with the decision to host these global mega-events. For the wealthy oligarchs and political elites, the rewards and profiteering have been manifest. For the poor, they get plague. It is as if even God has gone neoliberal.
Christopher Gaffney, longtime Brazil-based journalist whose research is on the effects of the World Cup and Olympics on cities, said to me, “The poor areas in Rio that lack basic infrastructure are more likely to have standing water that serves as the breeding grounds. In a brutal twist, these are the places least served by public-health systems, which the hosting of the WC and Olympics have harmed. Remember when [Brazil soccer legend] Ronaldo said, ‘You don’t host a World Cup with hospitals’? Now we see the results of misdirected investment. To be clear, the World Cup and Olympics made a bad situation worse, yet FIFA and the IOC take no responsibility for negative impacts of their wildly expensive parties.”
We are not too late to beat back the Zika virus, but it will require a radical shift in spending priorities in the hemisphere’s richest nations. This virus is already causing a tremendous stress on the most impoverished countries throughout the region. (El Salvador, one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere, has a Zika plan that consists of asking people to not get pregnant until 2018.) The solution will need to begin in Brazil and will take place only if President Dilma Rousseff—who is currently enmeshed in a corruption scandal that could result in her impeachment—immediately pivots toward a massive investment in public health and sanitation. Yet such an act is impossible with Olympic hosting duties a mere six months away. Brazil has already announced that it will cut Olympic spending by $500 million, with athletes and workers paying the price—ten percent of the five thousand temporary workers hired for the Games have been laid off. Yet even with these cuts, we will see—if the past is any guide—a last moment spike in spending to cover security costs, making their net effect irrelevant, except to the athletes and workers. That’s not a shift away from Olympic priorities. It’s public relations. It also won’t address the Zika crisis.
Nations often talk about their “Olympic legacy”: code for infrastructure that is left behind after the confetti is cleared. In Rio’s case, the legacy of the Olympics appears to be a disease that will hurt the most vulnerable people in countries across the hemisphere. Harming the most vulnerable while elites hold an oblivious party? At the very least, you can say that the International Olympic Committee is nothing if not consistent.