Rio — What Lies Ahead

The closing ceremony on Sunday officially marked the end of this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. For the past two weeks people around the world have tuned in to watch the world’s best athletes compete for personal glory and national pride.

The games also brought more attention to issues that have persisted throughout Brazil. From Zika to contaminated water, the world learned about highly local problems that are global in scope.

While many will slowly turn their attention elsewhere, it is important to not let these global challenges disappear from our transnational discussions.

Zika Virus

Fear of the Zika virus spread earlier this year as news outlets across the world began to turn their attention to Rio de Janeiro. What started as a discussion around the safety of Olympic athletes and their susceptibility for contracting the disease soon gave way to concerns over the virus spreading transnationally.

Zika virus is thought to be connected to microcephaly—a condition in which a baby’s head is dramatically undersized compared to the typical child. The condition can also produce developmental delays, hearing and sight problems, and a variety of other complications that can make the long-term viability of a newborn tenuous.

Reporting on a CDC report, The Washington Post says that Zika is “exploding” in Puerto Rico. Tourist areas in Miami, Florida noticed a remarkable decline in visitors due to the virus.

The discourse surrounding these stories, and many more like them, suggests that Zika is a problem only when it crosses into the Global North.

Others drew connections to the Ebola fracas just a few short years ago to predict that confirmed cases of Zika in the U.S. could have devastating consequences for the global economy.

Joseph Lewnard, from Yale University, writes that such fears are misguided and the threat of Zika becoming a pandemic is overstated. He contends that when we are motivated by fear we make choices that can lead to abuses of power—from forcible quarantining to travel bans to countries not associated with global health threats.

Despite the binary discussion that casts Zika as a scary, foreign invader or Zika as a mostly localized health problem that is very much a concern but perhaps not a mosquito-riding conquistador, the prevailing logic is that we should be concerned about the virus and its effects on mothers and children. This concern, however, should continue to shed light on how the virus works, its connections to microcephaly, and how we can work together to stymy the disease.

While the danger of contracting Zika is real, the reality is that the chances are very small.

Contaminated Water


Closing ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Philip Pryke. Flickr Creative Commons.)

Another issue coverage of the Olympics has brought to international attention is quality of water. CBS News recently reported on the seven types of diseases one could get swimming in water around Rio de Janeiro.

Much like reports on Zika, the fear frame around the water quality suggests a backward country that is a distant other in which public officials are powerless to clean up the environment and the citizens exacerbate the problems through their own indifference.

Yet, not so long ago the U.S. also dealt with lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. While it has fallen out of the day-to-day conversation, some caution that another Flint water crisis looms in the pipeline—both for Flint and cities around the country.

Rather than look at Brazil’s water situation as a distant problem in a distant land, we should focus on water quality globally.

Untreated sewage, industrial runoff, and rivers treated as trash dumps compound the issue of access to clean water.

The water quality in Brazil is a concern, yes, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

We are on the brink of a global water crisis that could amplify a whole host of problems—from general health to agriculture to conflicts.

Clean water is a challenge that is not limited to just Brazil. WaterAid’s recently released report highlights the water crisis and the fact that two billion people worldwide have no access to toilets and 650 million have no access to clean water.

The Road Forward

Olympics coverage shined a spotlight on global sports competition and allowed us all a brief reprieve from what seem like unending conflicts across the world. It also highlighted highly local problems that Brazil has been dealing with for the past few years as it prepared to host the Olympics.

Yet, now is the time to continue onward and look for ways to confront the challenges we all face together. From global health to clean water and myriad other obstacles.

The question is: Will we still pay attention?

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