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Brazil Is Having a Rough Week

Brazil is getting some heat as an unsafe venue for the Olympic Games, and that’s just the start.

By Francie Diep


Embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaks at a conference on May 10, 2016, in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Recent news about Brazil hasn’t been good. As Foreign Policyputs it, “Imagine trying to throw a giant party while going through an ugly divorce — and as disease-bearing mosquitoes swarm around your badly damaged house. That, essentially, is what Brazil is trying to do.” What exactly is going on?

1. The Disease

Brazil is at the center of the Zika virus epidemic, which has been linked to birth defects in infants and a potentially severe illness, called Guillain-Barré syndrome, in adults. The illness is so widespread in Brazil, health-policy researcher Amir Attaranargued in the Harvard Public Health Review against Brazil hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. The Games will only worsen the illness’ spread around the globe, Attaran writes, with worse consequences for the world’s poor.

2. The Divorce

Brazil is undergoing political turmoil, as its senate voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff last month. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Attaran called Brazilian politics “reminiscent of a soap opera” and argued it’s kept the country from responding as well as it should have to the Zika epidemic.

3. The Damaged House

Those first two bits of news reflect long-simmering troubles in the country, where the economy is undergoing its worst recession since the 1930s. In addition, more than half of the members of the Brazilian Congress and Senate are facing charges or are being investigated for serious crimes, the Los Angeles Times reported in March. Discontent is fueled by income inequality — Brazil is among the 20 most unequal countries in the world.

Why host the Olympics, then? The Games tend to cost cities far more than they bring in, in terms of infrastructure, tourism, and foreign investment, according to a recent review published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The balance is worse for cities in developing nations like Brazil than it is for cities in industrialized countries. Yet cities still bid for the games. Why? The authors of the Journal of Economic Perspectives review had a few ideas. The bidding process can drive up the Games’ price, as cities try to impress the International Olympic Committee with promises of snazzy new infrastructure. Plus, even if the Games create a net drain on a city, some sectors, including construction, restaurants, and hotels, still benefit, so those folks may lobby to host.

It remains to be seen whether the International Olympic Committee or the Brazilian government will change their minds about hosting this summer. If they do, the move will be unusual, but not unprecedented. In 1972, the city of Denver decided not to host the Olympics after accepting an offer due to concerns about the Games’ cost and environmental impact. Instead, the 1976 Olympic Games took place in Innsbruck, Austria, which already had infrastructure in place from hosting in 1964. Attaran suggests a similar solution for this year’s Games: “London, Beijing, Athens, and Sydney still possess useable Olympic facilities to take over from Rio,” he writes.