Zika And A Political Crisis Have Made The Rio Olympics A Looming Disaster

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Writing in the Harvard Public Health Review, University of Ottawa professor of population health Amir Attaran makes a persuasive argument that the outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil is so dangerous that the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics—scheduled to kick off in 84 days—should be postponed, moved, or cancelled:

But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now? Of course not: mass migration into the heart of an outbreak is a public health no-brainer. And given the choice between accelerating a dangerous new disease or not—for it is impossible that Games will slow Zika down—the answer should be a no-brainer for the Olympic organizers too. Putting sentimentality aside, clearly the Rio 2016 Games must not proceed.

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that can also be sexually transmitted. It has been known about for decades, but seemingly mutated into a much more dangerous version recently, and infected hundreds of thousands of people in Brazil in 2015. Most of those infected won’t have any symptoms, and a smaller amount will suffer from mild fevers and rashes. But for some the virus is extremely dangerous, being linked to dramatically increased rates of the terrifying Guillain-Barré disease and the terrible birth defect microcephaly.

Attaran makes a five-point case for why the Olympics shouldn’t proceed as scheduled:

  1. Rio de Janeiro is at the heart of Brazil’s outbreak
  2. The strain of Zika in Brazil is a new and more dangerous one
  3. The estimated 500,000 Olympics attendees will spread the disease back in their home countries, potentially transforming a somewhat localized public health crisis into a full-blown pandemic
  4. The rapid spreading of the disease will give researchers even less time to find a vaccine or other solution to stop or slow Zika’s spread
  5. The Olympics supposedly (lol) stands for “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”

The third and fourth arguments here are the big ones. The risk isn’t so much about the half million attendees—most are coming from wealthy countries and have access to high-quality medical care—but the possibility that they will spread the disease to the poor and vulnerable in every corner of the globe. This will likely happen eventually anyway (we live in an interconnected world blah blah blah), but the Olympics will, or at least could, rapidly speed this process up.

The other thing Attaran highlights is the hilariously depressing lack of leadership from those in a position to do anything about Zika. The International Olympic Committee is basically closing their eyes and sticking their fingers in their ears, with member Dick Pound calling the Zika worry a “manufactured crisis.” The World Health Organization has also remained mum on Zika and the Olympics.


It’s hard to know exactly how to prepare for these things. I remember my college making dramatic preparations for an H1N1 outbreak that never came, and the entire country flipping the fuck out and acting irrationally about an Ebola outbreak that—while extremely deadly in West Africa—didn’t spread as feared. There is an understandable desire not to want to cry pandemic wolf, but the IOC will do almost literally anything just to make a buck, and I wouldn’t trust them with a piggy bank, let alone to make thoughtful decisions about their role in a potential public health crisis.

Part of the issue here is that we are talking about Brazil. There are very real questions about its ability to simultaneously mount the world’s largest sporting event and manage a potential global health crisis. Not only is its economy in free-fall, but its political system is undergoing a profound constitutional crisis that is threatening to return the country to the dark days of dictatorial rule that ended in the 1980s.


Over the last few years Brazil’s economy has slowed down from the explosive growth of most of the 2000s, but that took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2015 as GDP shrunk by 3.8%, the country’s biggest contraction in 25 years.


This has put an enormous strain on Brazil’s political system, and it hasn’t reacted well. According to the Los Angeles Times, 49 of the 81 members of the Brazilian Senate are being investigated for “serious crimes,” while 303 of the 513 members of the lower Chamber of Deputies are being investigated. Some of Brazil’s largest companies are implicated in an unfathomably massive and far-reaching money laundering scheme, and the CEO of Brazil’s largest construction firm has already been sentenced to 19 years in prison for his role.

Just last week, the Senate voted to hold an impeachment trial for president Dilma Rousseff, which per the Brazilian constitution means she has to step down while the trial is ongoing. She allegedly used “arcane financial maneuvers” to obscure the poor state of the economy in the run-up to her successful 2014 re-election bid. Whether these charges are legitimate or politically-motivated with no basis in fact is an argument for another time, but Rousseff isn’t taking them lying down, calling her impeachment a coup, and saying that she is “a victim of a legal farce and a political farce.”


The Olympics, like the World Cup, has always been used to showcase host countries to the world, which means covering up everything those countries don’t want the world to see. Recent Olympics have been threatened by various concerns—Greece having enough money to throw the 2004 Athens games; China’s human rights and pollution problems before the 2008 Beijing games; basic geographic unsuitability and construction problems before the 2014 Sochi games—but at least so far as the IOC is concerned, they were all held successfully.


By those metrics—profit for everybody except those whose taxes are paying for construction, and a lack controversial images broadcast around the world—the Rio de Janeiro Olympics will probably be successful, too. But both of these crises legitimately threaten to derail the Olympics, and more importantly make a forceful argument that the Olympics, whatever it claims to stand for, is vastly more likely to exacerbate world crises than to solve them.