As virus rages on, Brazil braces for international soccer matches

Copa America - Brazil 2021

Most Brazilians don’t want it. Major sponsors have fled. Even players balked at the idea. But ready or not, the Copa America, one of Latin America’s most important sporting spectacles, is coming to town.

The international soccer tournament, which President Jair Bolsonaro greenlit with little warning late last month, will begin Sunday in Brazil against a backdrop of controversy and fear.

A third wave of the coronavirus, which is still killing on average nearly 2,000 Brazilians per day, is on the near horizon. Hospitals are again barreling toward capacity. The decision to host an international sporting event at such a moment has divided this traditionally soccer-obsessed country, further inflaming political differences amid an ongoing humanitarian disaster that has already killed nearly a half-million Brazilians.

A prominent sports announcer called Bolsonaro’s decision to host the tournament a “slap in the face of Brazilians.”Asenator leading an inquiry into Bolsonaro’s pandemic response called the tournament a “championship of death.” Players on the Brazilian team put out a letter saying they were “disappointed” in Copa America. Polls have shown more than 60 percent of Brazilians are against hosting the tournament. Scientists are warning Brazil is again teetering at the precipice and can scarcely afford to ignore the warning signs.

“We are having more than 70,000 cases per day,” said Domingos Alves, director of the Health Intelligence Laboratory at the University of São Paulo in Ribeirão Preto. “We aren’t going into a third wave. We are in a third wave.”

“It’s ridiculous that we would have CopaAmerica in Brazil amid the epidemiological situation that we’re going through,” he added.

Bolsonaro, who has spent the length of the coronavirus pandemic diminishing its significance, begs to disagree. The nationalist president says it’s long since time Brazil got back to business as usual. And when Co lombia and Argentina backed out of their commitments to host the tournament, citing coronavirus concerns, he stepped forward.

“The Copa America will happen in Brazil,” he said earlier this month. “From the beginning I’ve been saying in regard to the pandemic: I’m sorry for the deaths, but we have to live.”

In a country where politics and soccer have long mingled, analysts see political desperation in Bolsonaro’s sudden decision. In recent weeks, the country has been absorbed by a congressional probe investigating his administration’s erratic behavior during the coronavirus pandemic. Several witnesses have provided deeply damaging testimony, detailing his administration’s failures to purchase vaccine doses and its quixotic commitment to the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine long after it was shown to be ineffective against the virus.

Bolsonaro’s approval rating has dropped to 24 percent, according to the polling firm Datafolha, the lowest rating of his presidency. The right-wing nationalist, who won the presidency by campaigning against corruption and crime, is trailing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in early polls ahead of next year’s presidential election.

It is widely believed he saw an opportunity to change the narrative — and the damaging daily news reports of congressional testimony—by bringing to Brazil the one thing most people here follow more closely than politics: soccer.

“He needed to throw up a smokescreen to hide the information that is coming out and confirming to all who had any doubt what his administration has been doing during the pandemic,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political strategist in the capital Brasilia. “It’s an attempt to sell the image inside and outside of Brazil that it has overcome the pandemic, even if the numbers don’t say that.”

In fact, they say quite the opposite.

The critical care medical systems in nearly half of Brazil’s states are at least at 90 percent capacity. The average number of daily deaths is again rising. Only 11 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, as the inoculation campaign has repeatedly been mired in delays and supply shortages.

“The overall situation is, without doubt, one of an uncontrolled pandemic,” the Brazilian research institution Fiocruz said in a report last week.

The government has defended its decision to host the tournament by saying countries will restrict team delegations to 65 people, players and coaches will be quarantined and frequently tested, and the stadiums will be empty. Bolsonaro supporters have called the criticism an overreaction, saying this tournament will be similar to other sporting events the country has held during the pandemic.

“Brazil is totally capable of holding this tournament and following the restrictive safety measures,” Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator and the president’s son, said last week. “It’s up to you all to have a bit of hope and cheer for the Brazilian people.”

But scientists say it’s not the sporting events themselves that are most dangerous. It’s the crowds many fear are certain to form.

“Safety measures can possibly guarantee safety in some of the game’s locations,” said Suzana Lobo, president of the Brazilian Association of Intensive Medicine. “But Brazilians are very passionate about soccer. This could result in family crowds, in bars and in the roads to watch and cheer on the games.”

Spurred by a more transmissible variant and loosened restrictions, a rupture to Brazil’s medical system has already occurred once this year. People were turned away from hospitals and died without care all over the country. Doctors ran out of vital medications. Patients were intubated without sedatives. Others perished without oxygen. Cemeteries ran out of room to put the bodies. They were some of the darkest weeks in Brazil’s history.

The country, public health experts warn, must take the virus seriously if it doesn’t want to plunge back into that abyss.

“In this critical moment, with hospitals full and the risk of running out of supplies, any increase in the number of cases or hospitalizations is very scary,” Lobo said.

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