How the Copa America soccer tournament in Brazil is spreading COVID-19

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Just after nightfall about 60 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Marlus Jesus was whisked into a hospital after hours to verify that he didn’t have coronavirus, then ushered into a hotel room.

His secret mission? The Brazilian soccer star Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior and several teammates wanted haircuts.

“I started cutting hair at about 8 p.m. and finished after midnight,” said the 32-year-old barber. “I cut the hair of seven or eight players.”

He couldn’t resist posting a selfie with Neymar on Instagram.

The haircuts, which quickly became national news, burst a strict “sanitary bubble” meant to keep COVID-19 out of the Copa America, the premier soccer tournament on the continent.

The event has been shrouded in controversy since organizers hurriedly moved it to virus-stricken Brazil in early June, less than two weeks before kickoff. The original co-hosts, Argentina and Colombia, had suddenly bowed out, citing an alarming rise in coronavirus cases.

Brazil, where COVID-19 has claimed at least 525,000 lives, a toll second only to the United States, was a curious second choice. Infections were surging to unprecedented levels as the country entered a devastating third wave. But, to the shock of many, President Jair Bolsonaro enthusiastically agreed that Brazil be the host.

“From the beginning I have been saying, when it comes to the pandemic: I am sorry for the deaths, but we have to live,” said the far-right populist, who is being investigated by a congressional committee for his handling of the pandemic, including possible corruption related to the purchase of vaccines.

Government health authorities and Copa America’s organizers say those taking part of the tournament are following strict protocols to avoid infections, as 10 teams compete in four Brazilian cities. Crowds are barred from stadiums and players must stay in their rooms when not training or playing matches. Nearly 26,000 coronavirus tests had been administered as of this week.

But outside health experts say the event is complicating Brazil’s fight against the virus.

At least 165 new cases have been linked directly to the tournament. A total of 37 were players, coaches, trainers and other team personnel, while 125 were drivers, caterers, cleaners and others providing services for the tournament. Three work for Conmebol, the South American soccer federation, which provides medics and referees to the tournament.

“We’ve seen that the majority of cases were not among players — they were the people providing them with services,” said Dr. Lucia Campos Pellanda, an epidemiologist and dean of Porto Alegre’s Federal University of Health Sciences. “It’s really cruel — to expose people who are already vulnerable.”

Without systematic contact tracing, authorities are unable to determine how those infections may have spread coronavirus into the wider population.

Enforcing protocols — and controlling the players off the field — has proved challenging. Members of Chile’s team were accused of partying and inviting prostitutes to their hotel. Venezuelan team members infected with the coronavirus allegedly broke quarantine, sneaking out of their rooms. Hotel workers who came in contact with the rogue players complained that their pleas for testing were ignored for days.

With the Tokyo Olympics just over two weeks away, Brazil may serve as a grim bellwether on whether behemoth multinational sporting events can be held safely as the pandemic still rages on. Already, the Summer Games have sparked protests, as coronavirus cases surge across Asia.

“Even if the risk is minimal, even if an event like this results in a single death — is it worth it?” Pellanda asked.

Outraged Brazilians have dubbed the tournament “Cova America,” rebranding it using the Portuguese word for “grave.” Memes of a coffin kicking a coronavirus have swept through social media.

Brazil has advanced to the final, scheduled for Saturday. But many fans say that even if it wins and retains the title it captured in 2019, there will be little to celebrate.

“There just isn’t that same joy that the game usually brings,” said Júlia Passos, a 21-year-old food service worker. “This time, it brings a lot of sadness. Because it can’t erase what happened, how many people have died.”

Her family, like so many others, saw the devastation of COVID-19 up close. Her stepfather spent a week in hospital, struggling to breathe.

“With all the pain Brazil is going through, that we’re going through,” Passos said. “It is not the time to host a huge sporting event like this.”

Still, she couldn’t turn down a gig in one Rio stadium hosting some of the matches. Out of work since March, the young mother needed the income. On game days, she earns $20 serving food and drinks to the coaches, organizers and security staff.

Passos managed to get one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and she and her colleagues are tested for coronavirus every other day. Nonetheless, she said, the job feels risky, starting with her 25-mile commute from the outskirts of the city.

“We end up so exposed. We take trains packed full of people to get to work,” she said. “But I really needed the work.”

Her stepbrother, Júnior Campos, needed money too and also jumped at the chance to nab a job at the stadium. Yet, even as a soccer fan, the tournament left a bitter taste.

“I lost my uncle and, just last week, I lost my best friend too,” said Campos, 21, who was applying to colleges when the pandemic struck. “We’ve lost so many people to the virus. And so many are still dying. It’s absurd to have this event, to pretend like life is back to normal here, like in Europe.”

The Euro Cup, which is being held in 11 countries across the continent, kicked off in June amid easing lockdowns and ramped-up vaccination campaigns in many of the host nations. But even with reduced stadium capacity and rigid travel restrictions, the tournament has failed to fully avoid infection. The World Health Organization sounded an alarm recently, pointing to overcrowding and clusters of cases.

Health experts warn the risks are even greater in Brazil, where just over 13% of the population is fully vaccinated. One particular worry is that highly contagious new variants could gain traction. The Delta strain — first discovered in India — was spotted in one city hosting Copa America matches, though authorities are still unsure if it infected tournament participants.

In the last two weeks, daily coronavirus cases have eased from June’s record peaks. But health experts still fear spikes. And with the lag between infections and illness and hospitalization, they warn that the tournament’s full effects may not become clear for weeks.

Unlike much of the world, Brazil never closed down to contain the virus. All along, Bolsonaro downplayed COVID-19 and urged Brazilians to keep working. Lockdowns, he insisted, kill more people than the virus by hurting the economy.

Brazil ultimately lost out on both fronts. As the virus ripped through the country undeterred, the pandemic decimated the economy. A welfare scheme helped keep informal workers afloat last year, but the aid was slashed significantly as public spending ballooned.

Angry Brazilians have taken to the streets, calling for vaccines, economic aid and impeachment of the president. Nearly 15 million are out of jobs and hunger has almost doubled, with 19 million routinely going without food during the pandemic.

Faced with economic need, millions risk their health in search of work, including in the Copa America.

On a recent morning, Viviane Azevedo served breakfast to the Copa America delegations at a ritzy hotel in Rio’s wealthy south zone. Still waiting for her second dose of vaccine, she was happy for extra shifts at the hotel that came with the influx of guests.

“It’s a disgrace really, hosting this tournament now,” said Azevedo, 43, who went back to waitressing after being laid off from a piercing studio early in the pandemic. “But for us, there’s no other way. In today’s Brazil, if you don’t take the risk, you’ll go hungry.”

Murilo Castro Vianna, 61, waited outside the same hotel in a white shuttle bus, ready to drive Uruguay’s team to training. Earlier in his 12-hour shift, he had dropped off an injured player at the airport. A few days earlier, a fellow driver had been sickened by COVID-19.

“I’ve spent every day of this pandemic on the street, working,” he said. Before this, he had driven around linesmen working for an electricity company. “Here, I’m being tested. I wear my mask, I try to be careful. That’s all you can do.”

Back at the barber shop he owns in Belford Roxo, a working-class neighborhood on the northern fringe of Rio, Jesus was clad in a face mask as he swiftly razed a little boy’s hair into a mullet, like the ones worn by soccer stars.

One chair over, an unmasked employee trimmed a client’s beard, then doused it in a fragrant spray. Stand-up comedy blared from the television.

Jesus’ secret mission last month wasn’t the first time he cut the hair of Brazil’s soccer elite. But the Copa America job was a chance he couldn’t pass up.

The tiny, bright shop had remained shut for much of the pandemic. Jesus kept cutting hair in the homes of clients, to stay afloat.

“Are we afraid of the virus?” Jesus said. “Of course we’re afraid. But we have to work.”

Ionova is a special correspondent.



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