In the News: Health Disparities and Water Quality in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics

 

August 2016 – The 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has dominated news headlines in recent weeks. The athletics event, taking place from August 5 to August 21, featured 207 countries in the Parade of Nations as well as the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. It is the first time the games have been held in South America. But besides highlights on the events and spotlights on athletes’ training regimens and backgrounds, there is another stream of news stories surrounding the Olympic Games. These stories have focused on two key public health issues related to this year’s Games: health disparities and water quality issues.

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Rio’s Olympic beach volleyball venue is on Copacabana Beach. Photo from Marcio Jose Sanchez for AP.

Only two years ago the FIFA World Cup was making similar headlines in Brazil. As reported in 2014, and highlighted in this blog[1], there have been past concerns about access to quality healthcare despite the surge of funds for the World Cup event. These reports unmasked a problematic system of health disparities to a global audience. The Daily Californian[2] stated that many Brazilians were “unhappy that their government [was] funding stadium renovations instead of spending on more instrumental matters like improved health care and emergency services.” Reports relating to the current Olympics have painted a similar picture for the present health scene. As Reuters[3] reported in December 2015, the governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency “as hospitals, emergency rooms and health clinics cut services or closed units throughout the state as money ran out for equipment, supplies and salaries.” According to CNN[4], the financial crisis has been causing difficulties in the “provision of essential public services and can even cause a total breakdown in public security, health, education, mobility and environmental management.”. While the state of emergency declaration provides a critical 45 million reais ($25.3 million) in federal aid and may facilitate the transfer of future funds, estimates state that Rio de Janeiro owes approximately $355 million to employees and suppliers in the healthcare sector alone, and the state needs over $100 million to reopen the closed hospital units and clinics.[5] While the city of Rio spent approximately $7.1 billion on improving toll roads, ports and other infrastructure projects, the Brazil Ministry of Health devoted only $5.7 million to address health concerns[6].

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The Christ the Redeemer statue is visible above the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro. Photo from Joao Velozo for NPR. 

In addition to these issues (and the high-profile Zika virus, which is causing health concerns in multiple countries[7]), concerns surrounding water quality and cleanliness in Brazil has garnered considerable attention. A recent scene involving the diving and water polo pools turning a swamp-green color because of an algae bloom left some athletes complaining of itchy eyes.[8] While the Olympic Games have brought international attention to the impact of water quality on the athletes and visitors, the residents of Rio have been dealing with theses concerns on a daily basis for much longer. With almost 13 million people living in and around Rio, the current sewage system is struggling to cope. One news report[9] notes that “about 50 percent of what Brazilians flush down the toilet ends up in the country’s waterways. Diseases related to contaminated water are the second leading cause of death for children under five in Brazil.” Tests performed in a variety of areas, including the sailing venue of Guanabara Bay, over the course of a year found high levels of “superbugs of the sort found in hospitals on the shores of the bay.” The possibility of hospital sewage entering the municipal sewage system remains a concern.[10]

An economic recession, compounded by water concerns, political unrest, and a presently faltering healthcare system all leave many Cariocas— citizens of Rio– who rely on the public health system in a challenging and hazardous situation across the social, medical, and political spheres. With hopes of local profits from the Olympic Games ranging in the billions of dollars, much is at stake for both residents and investors.[11] Despite the risks and tribulations, many residents welcome the international event and attention, and credit the Olympics for cultivating “several underutilized, often abandoned spaces have been transformed to ones that appeal and cater to local residents”. Many “beautification” projects leave residents hoping the installation of new art and the newly constructed spaces will leave a lasting impression on its residents and visitors long after the games end.[12]  Despite this optimism, the citizens of Rio are not impacted equally by the Games.[13] The improved infrastructures will likely benefit those who already have access to services. Tourism, and tourism cash, has been weak in the favelas, or shantytowns, which house at least 25% of the population in Rio. The infrastructure inequities have even bypassed some neighborhoods entirely, leaving those residents out of the celebrations.[14]

Overall, these Olympic Games promise once again to bring the world’s cultures together in competition and camaraderie, yet they do not do so without controversy. This global spectacle illuminates athletics and sportsmanship, as well as the intersections between cultural events, politics and nationalism, power and profit, and community health. These larger issues lead to questions about what will happen to the residents of Rio after the Games have drawn to a close.

 


[1] https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2014/07/11/news-the-2014-world-cup-and-healthcare-in-brazil/

[2] http://www.dailycal.org/2014/07/08/uc-berkeley-faculty-graduate-students-look-world-cup-different-light/

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-health-emergency-idUSKBN0U716Q20151224

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/18/americas/brazil-rio-state-emergency-funding-olympics/

[5]http://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-health-emergency-idUSKBN0U716Q20151224

[6] http://wuwm.com/post/let-s-do-numbers-money-spent-rio-olympics#stream/0

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/29/world/americas/brazil-zika-rio-olympics.html?_r=0

[8] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-olympics-rio-diving-pool-idUKKCN10O0UW?feedType=RSS&feedName=sportsNews

[9] http://wuwm.com/post/rios-water-problems-go-far-beyond-olympics#stream/0

[10] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/02/sport/rio-2016-olympic-games-water-quality-sailing-rowing/index.html

[11] http://www.newsweek.com/rio-2016-who-stands-benefit-successful-olympics-453094

[12] http://www.kvia.com/news/rio-olympics-bring-beautification-projects/40884340

[13] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetorch/2016/08/11/487769536/in-rios-favelas-hoped-for-benefits-from-olympics-have-yet-to-materialize

[14] http://www.reuters.com/video/2016/08/14/olympic-infrastructure-causes-suffering?videoId=369565427

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2016 Preview: Books Received at the Journal

First made available online last month, Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry has released its most recent lists of books received for review at the journal (which you can access on our publisher’s website at this link.) These books include Carlo Caduff’s The Pandemic Perhaps: Dramatic Events in a Public Culture of Danger and Janis Jenkins’ Extraordinary Conditions: Culture and Experience in Mental Illness. Last year, we featured Caduff’s text (here) and Jenkin’s text (here) in book release features here on the blog.

The journal has also received the following two books for review. Here are the two releases:

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Image via UPenn Press website

New from the University of Pennsylvania Press is a collection of essays entitled Medical Humanitarianism: Ethnographies of Practice (available here.) Edited by Sharon Abramowitz and Catherine Panter-Brick, with a foreword by Peter Piot, the book explores the experiences of health workers and other practitioners who deliver humanitarian medical aid throughout the world. The book promises a “critical” yet “compassionate” account of humanitarian projects spanning Indonesia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Liberia, and other nations.

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Image via Cornell UP website.

From Cornell University Press comes Gabriel Mendes’ Under the Strain of Color:
Harlem’s Lafargue Clinic and the Promise of an Antiracist Psychiatry (available here.) This historical text examines a mental health clinic in the 1940s established to treat psychiatric complaints amongst a primarily black, urban, underserved population. Unlike other treatment centers for mental illness at the time, the Lafargue Clinic was unique in its emphasis on the medical as well as the social contexts in which its patients experienced distress. The clinic challenged existing notions of “color-blind” psychiatry and became both a scientific and equally political institution, highlighting the “interlocking relationships” between biomedicine, the state, racial inequity, and community-based health care.

News: Home Health Care for the Elderly in the United States

Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, and the medical anthropological community at large, is committed to understanding the changing landscape of aging as both developed and developing countries experience demographic shifts, social change, and economic transformations that have impacted the way older adults receive care and treatment. Our December 1999 special issue addressed the anthropological complexity of family care dynamics, dementia, and global aging, and our journal continues to publish articles on this pressing theme in the field.[1]

In recent news, there has been a flurry of articles that address the variety of new programs across the United States that strive to address this timely and critical issue in the field of medicine and care delivery. Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, for example, has initiated a home hospitalization program for elderly patients.[2] The program recognizes the desire of older adult patients to heal in their home environment, and visiting clinicians employed by the program are able to perform basic tests as well as deliver IV medications at the patient’s home in what is called a “mobile acute care” model.

This shift does, of course, benefit the hospital: it opens valuable bed space for other patients and allows staff to focus on the management of more serious cases. But it also has advantages for the patient, including reduced cost, the comfort of healing in the home, reduction in hospital-borne infections and symptoms of delirium in the unfamiliar hospital environment (common amongst older patients), and the ability for family members to be available at all times of the day to supplement care rather than being strictly permitted during visitation hours. A similar program for treating acute conditions in the elderly at home was instated in New Mexico, with promising results and improved patient outcomes.

Another piece in The Atlantic, however, outlines the difficulties of receiving extended at-home medical care for older adults with chronic illnesses like Parkinson’s.[3] As children of the elderly generation continue to work longer, and in married families both spouses are employed, there is no one at home to deliver lasting care to older family members who have chronic rather than acute conditions. Visiting home health aides, who are equipped to assist with basic tasks such as helping older adults shower and get in and out of bed, are typically underpaid and do not service outlying suburban or rural areas in the United States where many older individuals now live. Although the majority of elderly individuals prefer to live at home and not enter an assisted care facility, without consistent home care delivery available, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to do so.

Other organizations are generating creative solutions to delivering at-home care assistance for the elderly, particularly those without debilitating health conditions but who nevertheless require other forms of assistance. As NPR reports, many older adults struggle with the physical tasks required to cook healthy meals, such as lifting heavy pots and preparing fresh ingredients.[4] Some rely on microwaveable dinners, and do not get the nutrients they need to support their health. The company “Chefs for Seniors” has met this need in the Madison, Wisconsin area by sending professional chefs to older adults’ homes, where they cook a week’s worth of healthy meals for the resident. To ensure the plan is affordable for seniors, the company charges $15 for groceries and $30 per hour for the chef to prepare the meals: on average, this costs the customer $45 to $75 per week. The meals can also be personalized to the customer’s dietary preferences and needs.

While the United States faces numerous struggles to provide inclusive and accessible elderly care to an expanding older adult population, these smaller changes to the dynamics of caregiving—however flawed, as in the case of limited home health aides—demonstrates a broader recognition of this vital social and medical concern.

For another piece on elderly caregiving, be sure to check out this “From the Archive” blog post on dementia and family caregiving in urban India: https://culturemedicinepsychiatry.com/2014/11/19/from-the-archive-caregiving-and-dementia-in-urban-india/


Sources

[1] http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/23/4/page/1

[2] http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/27/admitted-to-your-bedroom-some-hospitals-try-treating-patients-at-home/?smid=tw-share&_r=0

[3] http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/04/who-will-care-for-americas-seniors/391415/

[4] http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/04/27/401749819/drop-in-home-chefs-may-be-an-alternative-to-assisted-living