It is no surprise that countries take great pride in hosting international competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup. These events hold the attention of both the hoi polloi and a cadre of presidents, prime ministers, and heads of state, allowing each host country to advertise their nation to the world. In 2014, the Russians spent a mind boggling $55 billion USD to prepare Sochi for the moveable athletic feast of the Winter Olympics, while Brazil spent its billions on football stadiums, including one deep in the interior on the Amazon River. These massive sums of money and feats of engineering are overwhelming and moving to the crowds that come to witness the competitions.
As Brazil gears up for the 2016 Olympic Games, however, a dark cloud is gathering over the proceedings. The country is shivering from a cold commodities market and tanking oil prices, coping with social instability from racial injustice and rampant poverty, and watching the impeachment of its president for reasons of creative bean counting. This economic and political instability is disastrous on a national level, but the looming disaster of the Zika virus, capping off these domestic calamities, is what should be drawing the attention of the world.
While there are highly legitimate critiques of the games being hosted in Rio, including filthy water and sewage conditions, the potential spread of the Zika virus is why the International Olympic Committee should be strongly considering moving the 2016 Olympic Games to a city outside the outbreak area. While upending the preparations for an entire Olympic Games seems extreme, considering the potential for the acceleration of the disease, it would be a worthwhile undertaking. At the moment, the CDC estimates that the range of the Zika carrying mosquito extends from southern California, across most of Texas and the Deep South, and all the way north to the nation’s Capitol. This large range of the mosquito itself is increased further by the potential for sexual transmission of the disease. In other words, not only could one individual who travels to Rio for the games become infected and return home to seed a new outbreak, that same individual could also pass the disease to a partner. Increased traffic between countries has proven a formidable enemy to disease control officials for years now (think of Chikungunya moving from Tanzania to the Caribbean, where Jamaica had to declare a state of emergency), and the situation is not likely to change. Globalisation has become such a ubiquitous reality that even freshman students of International Studies are sick of hearing the term bandied about. Adding the mobility of spectators and tourists who may become infected to the shifts in climate that expand the range of the mosquito that carries the disease, Zika has the potential to jump from the Rio Summer Games to locations across the globe.
To compound (or contribute to) the problem of Zika’s potentially rapid spread, countries are generally ill-equipped to put up a defense against the disease. In the past, efforts have been made to wipe out the aedes aegypti mosquito, which also carries yellow fever and dengue. In 1947, the Pan American Sanitary Organisation set out a plan to eradicate the mosquito, and by 1962, 18 countries and several Caribbean islands had successfully achieved this goal. The problem was that in the years following, few more countries saw success, and as a result, reinfestation was the name of the game for the rest of the decade. More recently, the danger of disease outbreak in highly concentrated population centres has been clearly underlined. In Peru, areas with high populations of aedes aegypti saw a dengue outbreak that killed 192 people in 1995. In 2005, Singapore saw a massive outbreak of 14,000 cases and in 2009, Bolivia saw 31,000 cases. At the moment, national response to Zika in the United States has been lacklustre, amounting mostly to the White House gutting other health programmes to fund Zika defense while Congress dithers. All of these epidemics underline the fact that national governments often struggle to contain disease within their own border, making concerns of international spread irrelevant to local policy makers and paving the way for the spread of the disease.
To be clear, nobody is advocating a blockade of travel to and from Brazil, but there is ultimately no good reason to send thousands upon thousands of spectators, athletes, and staff to the centre of a disease outbreak that has the potential to spread anywhere aedes aegpyti is found, leaving shrunken heads and the pained screams of infants in its wake. While some call for the games to be canceled, ultimately this is not a feasible option. The Games are a point of extreme national pride and offer a chance to draw together nations into a community. Underlining the severity of the decision, the Olympic Games have only been canceled in modern memory in the extreme cases of the First and Second World Wars. Instead of calling off the event, plans should be made to relocate the games to another city where the threat of Zika is not a factor. The Olympic Committee should arrange a trade between a host country at a later date and Brazil, which would allow the country time to fight the Zika outbreak but allow later use of the infrastructure it has already built for the games. The most important thing however, is not to let pride in hosting the Olympic Games allow us to wander blindly into a health disaster by doing nothing. In this case, we must not let pride come before the fall.