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.

ap_16221704995649-2a9b5ac7291dd20a71781f18eaca8c4d3edb888a-s800-c85

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].

rio-favelas--joao-velozo-9_custom-84b1822885fc72f97f7e9084730eb4397aa48b6e-s1300-c85

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

Advertisements

News: UN Releases New Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

On Friday, September 25th, the UN released its new plan for global development through 2030: the sustainable development goals (SDGs).[i] This plan replaces the millennium development goal (MDG) plan that expires at the end of 2015, and offers a new 17-point agenda focused on social equality, infrastructure, technology, and environmental conservation.[ii] Of note to medical anthropologists, global health workers, and other scholars in social medicine is the continued focus on health and well being as the third item amidst the seventeen goals. The SDG plan champions health “for all at all ages,” although it proposes no specific goals for improving elder care despite the language stressing health across ages. Maternal and reproductive health, substance abuse, traffic deaths, and universal health care coverage are key issues addressed in the SDGs.

Emblem of the UN via Wikimedia Commons

Emblem of the UN via Wikimedia Commons

Proponents of the new SDGs, like the World Bank, argue that the plan’s emphasis on both developed and developing countries creates a shared impetus for bolstering food security, education, and access to quality health care; likewise, it suggests that these issues are global ones that cross national borders, and do not exist at the state level alone.[iii] Others criticize the SDGs as too ambitious, arguing that global authorities already struggle to aid migrants and peoples in crisis[iv], stating that the goals are too broad and thus not focused enough to produce observable change[v], and highlighting the irony of combating climate change while promising electricity for all by 2030.[vi]

Anthropologists have long held an interest in international development as a site of cross-cultural exchange, a relic of colonialism, and as a paternalistic model of societal shepherding of developing nations by the wealthy West and Global North.[vii] Amongst development anthropologists, the sustainable development goals will certainly generate new questions about the connectedness of social inequities with health, autonomy, and human rights in the contemporary age. The goals will similarly continue to attract the interest of scholars studying biomedicine and global health in diverse cultural settings.

In addition, the SDGs will no doubt capture the attention of anthropologists in science and technology studies (STS) with the plan’s robust emphasis on technologies, energy, infrastructure, and the environment. This sharpened focus on the connection between social order, science, and technology attests to the applicability of STS approaches to the study of development.

The SDGs arrive at a time of increased concern over social justice and equity on the transnational scale, particularly in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis[viii] and given wide income gaps that impact people in the United States, Chile, Greece, Mexico, and Turkey alike.[ix] Anthropologists are ideally situated to explore the impact of development goals across cultures, and to question how and why these goals may face considerable challenges as they are translated into action, law, and practice at the local level.


[i] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/sep/25/global-goals-summit-2015-new-york-un-pope-shakira-malala-yousafzai

[ii] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics

[iii] https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/global-goals-economic-transformation-in-an-interconnected-world

[iv] http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/09/28/444188463/are-the-new-u-n-global-goals-too-ambitious

[v] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sustainable-development-goals-offer-something-for-everyone-and-will-not-work/

[vi] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/energy-access-sdgs-un-climate-change/407734/

[vii] http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0631228802.html

[viii] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/28/world/united-nations-main/

[ix] http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/27/us-development-goals-challenges-analysis-idUSKCN0RR0TV20150927

Book Release: Wailoo’s “Pain: A Political History”

Image via JHU Press

Image via JHU Press

This October 2015, Johns Hopkins University Press is slated to release Keith Wailoo’s Pain: A Political History. Wailoo’s book examines how the definition of chronic pain in the United States developed and changed alongside broader political and economic changes. The book begins with the culture of treatment following World War II, when public and political attitudes towards pain considered physical suffering real and potentially disabling. With decreasing support of disability programs throughout the 1980s, however, the validity and legitimacy of chronic pain came under question.

New conversations beginning in the 1990s about euthanasia reinvigorated the conversation surrounding pain, no doubt bolstered today by current discussions of medical marijuana laws and the burgeoning use of prescription painkillers for recreation purposes. This renewed interest in the nature and the extent of pain have enlivened the debate around who experiences pain, how we certify pain, and at what point pain requires medical intervention.

The book strives to illuminate the historical foundations of today’s contemporary pain medication and treatment market, particularly in terms of the liberal and conservative political trends between the 1950s and today. Wailoo’s account culminates with an exploration of the contemporary state of pain care: a severe imbalance between the overmedicated and the underserved who cannot access treatment for their chronic pain. Pain: A Political History will certainly prove insightful for historians of medicine as well as political-economic medical anthropologists, theorists of neoliberalism, and medical anthropologists carrying out research in the United States.

Wailoo is Professor of History and Public Affairs as well as the Vice Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.


To learn more about the book, click on JHU Press’ page here: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/pain