Rio de Janeiro beyond the Olympic Games and the Zika controversy

03 June 2016

Giselle Datz - Associate Professor of Government & International Affairs, Virginia Tech, USA

The real malaise of Rio is not just the Zika virus epidemic, but a fiscal and governance crisis that has engendered its own set of increasing dangers

On May 26th, a group of renowned scientists published a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for the 2016 summer Olympic games taking place in Rio de Janeiro to be ‘postponed and/or moved to another location’. Their claim was that the ‘Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before’.  Therefore, the more than 500,000 foreign visitors attending the global event in August are at risk of acquiring ‘that strain, and return[ing] home to places where it can become endemic’.  This would be particularly problematic in cases of poor countries where the virus has yet to take hold.  For the 150 scientists signing the letter, it is ‘unethical’ to run such a risk.

The WHO, however, refused to side with the ‘move Rio Olympics’ supporters, stating that ‘cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of the Zika virus’. Travel to and from Brazil has not been halted, though the WHO suggested that following public health travel advice provided by their countries’ health authorities. Pregnant women, however, are not advised by the WHO to visit Rio at the moment.

Despite making a strong plea for congressional funding in the United States for a ‘robust response’ to the spread of Zika, Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, also contended that ‘there is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics’ in Rio.

In the same week that the letter about the risk of holding the Olympics in Rio was made public, local news in Rio showcased the challenges faced by sailing teams already practicing in the Guanabara Bay. Efforts to reduce pollution levels have fallen short of promised targets and the bay and the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon are frequently contaminated with sewage. Not unlike the Zika epidemic, these problems are symptomatic of a broader set of (seemingly chronic) governance ailments both in the city of Rio de Janeiro and in the eponymous state where it is located.

Much has been publicized about Brazil’s current economic and political crises. Since President Rousseff’s impeachment, the newly installed government of Michel Temer (her former vice-president) has experienced a bumpy start.  More and more corrupt deals are being exposed almost on a daily basis, thanks to recordings of conversations revealing plots to transfer public revenues (particularly from state oil company Petrobras) to private pockets, halt corruption investigations, and even undermine the Supreme Court.  These recordings further incriminate former president Lula (Rousseff’s champion), politicians of the country’s main political parties, the Senate’s majority leader, Temer’s (now fired) Minister of Planning, former president Sarney, among other long-time party bosses.

What do Rio and the Olympic Games have to do with this national political mess? To be sure, the problems plaguing the city and state of Rio have been unfolding for at least three decades. Yet, the economic crisis affecting Brazil and notably the scandal at Petrobras affect Rio in particular.

The city of Rio’s largest revenue stream comes from oil sales through Petrobras. Lower oil prices and the crisis within Petrobras have therefore hit a state already ailing due to the country’s deep recession.  Teachers have gone on strike, public servants cannot predict when or how they will be paid, and public hospitals lack medicines, skilled professionals, beds, and basic supplies (which raises concerns about the city’s ability to respond to the Zika epidemic). Former Minister of Finance and veteran politician Francisco Dornelles, who is serving as the interim governor of the state of Rio while the governor undergoes cancer treatment, stated in a recent interview: ‘Never in my life have I seen such a tragic financial situation in the country or in the state’.

In fairness, the city of Rio has been the site of some urban renewal. Parts of the downtown area and public squares around the city have been redesigned.  The new Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã) inaugurated in December 2015 has been a hit among residents, eager for public spaces where education and design cohabit.  The Museum was also part of a broader initiative to regenerate and gentrify Rio’s ailing port district, a previously decaying and crime-ridden part of town.

However, other city transformations, particularly attempts to redesign transportation patterns, have taken a toll on residents who have had to live with construction sites and modified traffic patterns that make commuting around town an even more taxing endeavor than usual.

All these changes have been taking place in an urban environment which Veja magazine aptly describes as marked by ‘social degradation’.  Homelessness and crime rates have skyrocketed.  From January to April of this year, 2,652 thefts were recorded in downtown Rio alone, a 25% increase from 2015.  In February 2016, there were 477 homicides recorded in the city, an 11.7% increase compared to February 2015.

Brazil managed to pull off the 2014 World Cup. But the Olympics are more challenging.  They are not a national, but rather a local event, taking place in one city at a time of deep economic and political crises and on top of an unfolding Zika epidemic and ever greater local governance constraints.

Visitors to the Olympics will certainly be warmly welcomed. Yet they should know what they are getting into.  Problems as chronic as the ones the city faces today can hardly be covered up by Olympic ‘make up’.  Rio has been the epicenter of the Zika epidemic partly because it is also a place where government makes a habit of masking endemic problems with a patina of improvement, and leaving the population (and especially those most in need of attention) to their own scarce devices.

Global coverage of the games will start with a panoramic view of what is undeniably one of the world’s most beautiful cities. A narrower zoom into Rio’s streets, waterways and public spaces beyond the Olympic parks will reveal the far from idyllic dynamics that Rio’s residents reluctantly endure.  The corrupt and inept management of both the state and city of Rio de Janeiro has produced dangers much greater than the Zika epidemic.  They are also likely to linger way after visitors return home, cameras are turned off, and the veil of ‘normalcy’ (paradoxically guaranteed by military patrols) is lifted.

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