Don't move the Olympics, protest them

June 3, 2016

I just returned to the United States from Rio de Janeiro, where I was researching a story on the Olympics in August for The Nation.

People spoke to me about the displacement and police violence that are accompanying the games. Yet one of the hottest points of discussion emerged from outside the country: a call to move, or at least postpone, the Olympics to prevent the global expansion of the Zika virus, currently exploding in Rio.

The Zika virus is primarily spread by mosquitoes, and has been proven to cause birth defects such as microcephaly. The World Health Organisation has already advised pregnant women to not travel to Brazil.

Yet the favela (poor neighbourhood) residents, social activists, and healthcare professionals I spoke with in Rio — none of whom were Olympic boosters — believed the call to be absurd.

Dr Rodrigo Brindeiro, director of the Biology Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told me the idea that isolating Rio and moving the Olympics will keep the spread of Zika at bay “simply does not make sense”.

Rio receives 5 million tourists every year. One million people came to Rio during the Carnival in February, which was the height of mosquito season. In other words, the cachaça is out of the bottle.

To be sure, the Zika virus is a serious public health issue. But it is important to speak frankly about who is most threatened and how to stop its spread.

It is not possible to isolate Rio from the rest of the globe. But it is possible to isolate the virus — with changes to public policy.

Zika is primarily ravaging population-dense poor communities with inadequate sewerage. Wealthy tourists and athletes in hyper-controlled, highly fumigated environments are at a relatively low risk. Brindeiro emphasised that only investment in infrastructure, mosquito control, and public-health policy can slow its spread.

What is most frightening is how the current political and economic crisis in the country could serve to make the situation worse.
I was in Brazil as Workers Party (PT) President Dilma Rousseff was removed from power, and the word used in the streets was not “impeachment” but “coup”.

Dilma, as she is popularly known, is not above criticism for the various scandals gripping the country. But compared with the political parties and individuals that voted for her impeachment, she's Jefferson Smith.

Three-fifths of Brazil's Congress is currently under some form of investigation. But her removal was not about graft. It was about ejecting a president elected just 18 months ago with 54 million votes because the right wing of Brazil and its powerful backers could not dislodge her at the ballot box.

The PT has been in power since 2002, greatly expanding social services and raising the minimum wage in what is one of the world's most economically unequal nations. The nation's oligarchy was fine with these reforms as long as the economy continued to hum along with stratospheric growth rates.

But with the international drop in oil prices has come economic contraction. Dilma tried to appease international investors with cuts to social services, but all this did was demobilise and demoralise her PT supporters, and her own approval rates plummeted to under 8%.

Brazil's oligarchs seized the moment and removed Dilma, installing her coalition vice president Michel Temer as the nation's new leader. Recent polls indicate Temer would receive 2% of the vote if he were running for president today. He is a deeply corrupt, deeply compromised career politician whom 60% of the country already wants impeached.

Without anything resembling a popular mandate, Temer has presented a series of sweeping reforms to slash pensions, which would likely cut thousands of government jobs, weakening labour laws and freezing the minimum wage. In an act with no shortage of symbolism, in this most diverse of countries, he has installed a cabinet that is entirely composed of white men: the first time in decades no women have held cabinet posts.

Most alarming is the fact that Temer wants to shrink the budget earmarked for public health. Those worried about the spread of the Zika virus should be far more afraid of this regime than the Olympics.

This new government has made no commitment to the one action that can curb the virus's spread: reducing economic inequality and investing in sewerage as well as healthcare.

Couple Temer's unelected agenda with the displacement and hyper-militarisation, and there is no shortage of reasons to protest the summer games in solidarity with the people who will be marching in the streets of Rio.

[Abridged from Edge of Sports.]

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