Brazilians shrug off Zika fears to revel in Carnival fun

Dancers perform during Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Zika outbreak hasn’t changed much for attendees.
Dancers perform during Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Zika outbreak hasn’t changed much for attendees.
Published Feb. 11, 2016

SALVADOR, Brazil — From a mosquito's point of view, the sweaty, minimally clothed multitudes thronging the streets of this northeastern city Monday night must have looked especially delectable.

Drunk on beer and preoccupied by the prodigious carnal possibilities, young men and women danced their way along Avenida Oceânica as Brazilian pop icons performing atop giant motorized stages exhorted them to jump, party and celebrate life.

Momentarily distracted from the bacchanal, Mariana Souza, 26, rolled her eyes when asked about Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that is raging across the nation and much of Latin America. "Do I look worried?" Souza, a shop clerk dressed in short-shorts and a stringy halter top, shouted above the din. "Ask me next week, after Carnival is over."

Despite deepening fear and worry across the Americas since the World Health Organization declared that Zika is a global emergency, millions of Brazilians this week offered a collective shrug and took to the streets to celebrate Carnival. Such dispassion has alarmed public health officials, who are scrambling to curb the outbreak among a population that has long lived with mosquitoes — and which seldom takes precautions to avoid bites, especially those too poor to afford repellent, window screens or air-conditioning.

In interviews with scores of revelers in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Salvador, only a handful expressed concern about Zika — and few people wore the pants or long-sleeve shirts that would reduce the chance of mosquito bites.

"Carnival in Rio: A Party for Humans and a Feast for Mosquitoes," is how one newspaper headline summed up the mood.

Here in Salvador, an impoverished, sweltering city of 3 million that has been hit hard by Zika, hotels are fully booked, news outlets are fixated on Carnival, and cologne-suffused sweat, not mosquito repellent, is the dominant scent wafting through the crowds that gather day and night. According to some estimates, attendance is up 25 percent over last year.

Amid soaring unemployment, a plummeting currency and an expanding corruption scandal that threatens the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, Zika barely registers among Brazilians.

"Most of my friends are more worried about finding jobs," said Andre Olveira, 38, the owner of a small hotel in Salvador that went belly up last year. He noted that dengue fever, another mosquito-transmitted virus that killed more than 800 people in Brazil last year, is far more pernicious. "If you're not a pregnant woman, you don't need to worry. Let's be honest: Brazilians have far bigger problems than Zika."

Still, for outsiders, the sight of so many people gallivanting about in various stages of undress and seemingly oblivious to the potential dangers of Zika can be striking. The warning last week that the virus might be transmitted through saliva appeared to have little impact on the hallowed tradition of snogging complete strangers. An entirely unscientific survey of revelers who were asked about the dangers of contracting Zika through unprotected sex yielded expressions that blended ridicule with disbelief.

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Carnival is simply playing its time-honored role as a national escape valve during tough times, said Raul Juste Lores, editor at large at Folha de São Paulo, one of the nation's largest newspapers.

During the currency crisis of 1999, foreign media outlets that predicted a subdued Carnival in Rio were proved wrong by jubilant, record crowds. "No crisis has ever diminished the magic and excitement of Carnival. During pessimistic and depressing times, it becomes more important," Lores said. "It's escapism on steroids."

Citing the growing threat of Zika, some critics have questioned the state government's decision to add two nights to the traditional five-day pre-Lenten festival, which ends Wednesday; others have bemoaned what they described as lackluster public education about the virus and piecemeal efforts at mosquito eradication. In many Brazilian cities, mosquito repellent has become nearly impossible to find.

"It's just absurd," said Dr. Gúbio Soares, a virologist at the Federal University of Bahia who identified some of the first cases of Zika. "It's like Caesar in Rome: he gave the people circus and bread, but in Brazil we only get the circus."

Brazilian doctors have reported more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly — a rare condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads — that they believe are linked to the Zika virus, though the number of confirmed cases is much smaller. By some estimates, the virus has infected more than 1 million Brazilians, though few people experience symptoms, which include joint pain, fever and a rash. Health officials in some affected areas have also reported a surge in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nerve disorder that can cause temporary paralysis and leave some patients dependent on life support.

Even those who acknowledged their fears of Zika said their dread was tempered by a belief that tough times should never get in the way of a good party. Taking a pause from banging on a drum, Priscila Lacerda, 28, a cook from Rio who is eight months pregnant, said many pregnant women she knew refused to leave their homes, or did so only fully covered.

She said that she was vigilant about wearing mosquito repellent, and that she made sure the potted plants in her home were free of standing water.

"I don't want to develop a neurosis over Zika," she said. "I'm not totally relaxed about it now, but I'm not going to stop living."