The opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics are quickly approaching. The years since Rio was awarded the 2016 Summer Games have been turbulent in Brazil and the international media have made much of the deep and substantive obstacles confronting a smoothly executed event. To top off the tank of favela evictions, failed programs, construction shortcomings, and general civic preparedness we now have political turmoil and an unsettling vector borne pathogen to contend with.

Recently I challenged my oldest daughter to learn a new fact regarding Galveston Bay area ecology for every day, indefinitely. The first fact, then, became the meaning and scope of ecology. The suffix, she knew well enough. She even had a reasonable guess that ecology had to do with studying life and the earth, which, as we discussed, it does, however, since those are also other branches of science, I had her look up the etymology of ecology, from which she learned that the prefix comes from the Greek word οἶκος, “house” or “dwelling.”


Ernst Haekel coined the term ecology. Click image for link


Along the course of the conversation, she asked if it would be in keeping with the challenge to learn a fact about local culture, art, or politics. We agreed it would, so long as she could express how the fact related to the interaction and “dwelling” (as a verb and a noun) of local life.

The case of Zika brings into a clear focus just how inter-related the dwelling places of disparate species are. It also shows, that although some issues are viewed and studied and pursued as independent and discrete, they may not be so easily separated. Public health and urban planning are both the realm of ecology—they both deeply concerned with how species interact, so although in most jurisdictions the two are pursued separately, they cannot be so easily divided in the arithmetic of nature and physics.

Zika is causing a stir in relation to the Olympics: for example, the US State Department estimates that apprehension around ZIka has cut anticipated American attendance in Rio fully in half, and the Harvard Public Health Review expressed a sturdy argument for postponing and/or relocating the Summer2016 games to avoid hastening the spread of Zika from massive surge of international travel to and from Rio this summer.


People walk past graffiti art in the Providencia community of Rio, a favela that dates back to 1897. Mario Tama/Getty Images

As well the World Health Organization drew criticism for its advice aimed at Olympic attendees to, “Avoid visiting impoverished or overcrowded areas” while visiting the Rio Games. Critics rightly pointed out that such advice would increase already prevalent stigmas against favelas.

The problem is that much of what we know about how Zika will work, we know from experience with similar diseases, such as dengue.

We know that despite being separated only by an international boarder, the practical risk of dengue were 8 times higher in Matamoros, Mexico than Brownsville, Texas—the difference being public infrastructure, planning, and their resultant hygiene.

Of course stigma will never help a favela. And it won’t cure Zika. But, as medical anthropologist, Hannah Lesshafft describes the divide between risk and safety may very much ride the same line as the border between a favela and a planned neighborhood. That line is attention paid to public health and public planning.


Expectant Mother, Fernanda de Oliveria Marchini of Riberao Preto, SP afraidof her Zika diagnosis. Click through for photo credit and story.

A counterpoint to the argument that poverty ensures higher risks of Zikais that even if mosquitos can propagate more in a favela because of infrastructural issues, mosquitos fly and therefor may bite anyone, rich or poor.
That argument could be true, though unsupported by somereisk factors and previous data from dengue. However, even if true, it shows yet again just how intertwined are the destinies of disparate parts of the human ecology we call cities. Some risk factors increase in a favela because of civic neglect, infrastructural insufficiencies, economic hardships, etc. but then the vector is a winged creature with no preference but blood.

Just as we learn in ecology that habitats are all connected, just as my daughter quickly noticed that all aspects of life, civic and otherwise, can be traced to crucial ecological roots—so we see that neglect is neglect and where the city at large may fail to address needs of its poorest precincts, those failures are never too far removed.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s