As with many epidemics, there is confusion amongst medical professionals on how to combat a new health threat. We can see this with the Zika outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) now estimates that this virus has been transmitted throughout 62 countries and territories — with Vietnam being the latest country to report a documented case of infection. Six countries have reported locally-acquired infection via sexual contact since cases were first widely reported in Brazil last year.
With over 10,000 athletes and 500,000 visitors expected to descend on Rio de Janeiro, health professionals are naturally concerned that the virus could spread. Sure, one Australian company is donating hundreds of thousands of condoms that it says will help nix the spread of Zika. But never mind the fact that Rio’s raucous nightlife, along with the reality that a few caipirinhas would cloud anyone’s judgment: Insisting that everyone wear mosquito repellent and wear a condom during intercourse are just a couple of Band-Aids on a public health threat that is rapidly spreading.
So, should the Olympic games be postponed, or even moved?
Not so, say Dr. Margaret Chan, head of the WHO, and Dr. Tom Friden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Both told CNN that they see no reason to delay, cancel or move the Summer Olympics.
An internationally-renowned group of doctors, however, is not having it. In an open letter to Dr. Chan, 186 doctors (as of press time) from all continents, including three from Brazil, declared that there is enough scientific evidence that proves the Zika outbreak is a serious threat to the point that the Rio 2016 games should either be postponed or moved to another location.
“Currently, many athletes, delegations, and journalists are struggling with the decision of whether to participate in the Rio 2016 Games. We agree with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendation that workers should consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission. If that advice were followed uniformly, no athlete would have to choose between risking disease and participating in a competition that many have trained for their whole lives.” - Open Letter to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization
To that end, the doctors who signed this letter are calling the WHO out for what they say are the 120,000 documented cases of Zika (32,000 in Rio alone), 1,300 confirmed cases of microcephaly, and the outbreaks that have occurred in the vicinity of Rio’s Olympic Park. Even more damning, say these doctors, is the fact that Rio’s municipal government slashed funding for programs designed to fight the spread of Zika by 20 percent.
Particularly galling, the doctors stated in this letter, is what the they allege is an inappropriate, even corrupt, relationship between the WHO and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). These doctors alleged that the WHO has overstepped boundaries by assisting in past efforts to bid for major events such as the Olympics. Add the fact that the chief of the WHO’s Zika-response team was quoted in February as saying, “it’s going to be a successful Olympics and the world is going to be there,” the signatories to this letter point out that the WHO is in no position to assess, without any conflict of interest, the public health risks of Zika.
There has been precedent for moving sporting events in the past. The 2003 Women’s World Cup was moved from China to the U.S. because of the SARS outbreak. Major League Baseball canceled a series in Puerto Rico this summer out of concerns over Zika. Morocco refused to host the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament in early 2015 out of fears of Ebola.
But those sporting events' revenues were paltry compared to the money expected to be made at the Rio 2016 Olympics. And the IOC, which has a history of manipulating countries’ national pride to build expensive venues (which often become white elephants), will not lose face and cancel or postpone the games on its own volition — especially when the 2022 Winter Olympics were awarded to Beijing, which incidentally will have to create artificial snow, as no one, except for Kazakhstan, wanted to host the event.
So, if the IOC will not listen to these doctors’ advice, should business step in?
Few corporations are actually touting their sponsorships of the games, largely because Brazil is in turmoil as the country deals with public protests over corruption and diminished public services, an impeachment scandal, and its worst economic performance since the 1930s. But according to the IOC, the usual players are sponsoring the Rio 2016 games. The impressive roster includes Coca-Cola, Dow, McDonalds, P&G, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa.
Clearly these companies cannot cancel their financial commitments, as contractual obligations and the threat of legal action will get in the way. But if the public health threat from Zika is as serious as some of the world’s leading medical professionals assert, it may be time for these companies -- many of which constantly promote how socially responsible they are -- to assess the medical evidence at hand and make a decision in the best interests of society, not their relationships with the IOC.
The world will not end if the Olympics are held in an odd-numbered year. It is not unreasonable to give Brazil a year or so to contain the virus. And if Brazil cannot get its act together, plenty of cities, from Paris to Los Angeles to Seoul, have the facilities to hold these games. The evidence suggests that Brazil has not been able to manage this crisis, and the world needs to step up so that Zika can be contained -- and not worry about the massive egos roaming the halls of the IOC’s lakeside headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The IOC may not listen to doctors unless it receives the opinions it wants to hear, nor does it seem concerned with the Brazilians living in favelas (shanty towns) who have borne the brunt of this health crisis. But like its counterpart in soccer, FIFA, the IOC listens and responds to money. Companies who are affiliated with the Olympics should demand that the Summer Olympics be delayed or postponed, or forget about future sponsorships.
It is understandable that these athletes have trained their whole lives to get perched on that Olympic medals stand, but it is time for businesses to take a real stand and insist the Summer Olympics wait until Zika can be contained.
Image credit: Government of Brazil/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.