When COVID-19 overwhelmed Argentina too badly to host the South American soccer championships, officials decided to move the tournament to pandemic-battered Brazil of all places, drawing criticism from epidemiologists and a flurry of jokes.
Already forced to delay the Copa America by a year, organizers are struggling to pull off the world’s oldest running international football competition in a region still reeling from COVID-19 and — in the case of original cohosts Colombia — violent unrest.
With its huge economy and wealth of stadiums from the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Brazil looked in some ways like a good last-minute fix after officials on Sunday pulled the plug on would-be hosts Argentina two weeks from kickoff on Sunday next week.
Yet there is one glaring problem with Monday’s announcement that Brazil would step in: COVID-19 is devastating the country, where the death toll stands at more than 460,000, second only to the US, and experts warn a third wave is coming.
“An event of that size moves countless people, even if the matches are held in empty stadiums, and moving people increases the spread of the virus. It’s going to contribute to a new flare-up,” said infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez, of Brasilia’s pandemic response committee. “The tournament should have been canceled, full stop.”
The news quickly turned political in a country deeply divided over Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s unorthodox response to the pandemic.
Bolsonaro has fought lockdowns, snubbed masks and refused offers of vaccines, instead touting ineffective medications such as chloroquine.
It will be the “championship of death,” said Brazilian Senator Renan Calheiros, rapporteur of a Brazilian Senate commission investigating accusations of criminal negligence in the government’s pandemic management.
At least three governors in states tipped as likely hosts of matches have already said that they would refuse because of the health situation.
Social media wits were quick to upload a flood of jokes.
“Suggestions for the Copa America mascot? How about ‘Little Covid’?” sports commentator Alexandre Lozetti wrote on Twitter.
“Little Chloroquine” was also popular, as well as a proposal to rename the tournament the “Cepa America” — the “America variant.”
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