On May 27, fears of a mass global outbreak of the Zika virus compelled 150 respected health experts–including former White House science adviser Philip Rubin–to issue an open letter saying “in the name of public health,” the Summer Olympics in Rio should be relocated or delayed until the outbreak dies down. Their concern adds to the growing chorus of voices expressing doubts that Brazil–in the midst of a sea of crises–will be able to successfully pull off the first Olympics to be held in South America.
The World Health Organization played down concerns of an outbreak on May 28, saying there was “no public-health justification” for postponing or canceling the Olympics because of Zika. The mosquito-borne disease generally causes mild symptoms but has been linked to microcephaly, a rare condition where babies are born with small heads and severe developmental problems. With as many as 1.5 million estimated cases of Zika last year in Brazil alone, many potential Olympians are worried. Athletes including the Chicago Bulls’ Pau Gasol and Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy are considering skipping the Games altogether.
A snowballing corruption scandal has seen President Dilma Rousseff suspended, while interim President Michel Temer has lost two Cabinet members to resignations. Brazil is also mired in its worst recession since the 1930s, while struggling with protests and spiking levels of violence, including the highly publicized gang rape of a 16-year-old girl. On May 30, just over two months shy of opening ceremonies, the government fired contractors working on the velodrome–already the most delayed of the venues due to problems laying the track. And Olympians worry about competing in Rio’s severely polluted waterways.
REASONS FOR HOPE
Last-minute panics are not new to the Olympics; despite delays and doubts, the 2004 Games in Athens were seen as a success. The majority of Zika infections occur far from Rio, in the northeast, and mosquito transmission rates slow down in the southern hemisphere’s winter months, when the Games are held. Most of the venues are built, and after being beset by funding issues, the metro line linking Rio’s beach areas to the Olympic park finally conducted its first test trip on May 23. Olympic officials are adamant that the Games go on, but with ticket sales sluggish, one key question remains: Will people turn up?
This appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of TIME.
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