Health & Medicine

The budget for the Rio Olympics is 16 times higher than the budget to combat the Zika virus

This story is a part of a series

Her Planet

This story is a part of a series

Her Planet

If you were Brazil's president, how would you choose to allocate the nation's limited resources — fighting the Zika virus or organizing the Rio 2016 Olympic games?

The Brazilian government is losing its ability to maneuver financial resources as the country faces its worst economic crisis since 1930. The economy was expected to shrink by 3.7 percent in 2015 and 2.5 percent in 2016, according to the World Bank.

The most populous country in Latin America is also fighting its worst health crisis since 1918, according to Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a leading health research institution based in Rio de Janeiro. 

The institution expects that by the end of 2016, Brazil will have 16,000 cases of microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby is born with an abnormally small head. Researchers suspect it is caused by the Zika virus. Brazil's health ministry estimated that up to 1.5 million Brazilians may have been infected by the virus.

Yet the country is gearing up to host one of the world's biggest mega-events — the Rio 2016 Olympic games in just six months, and only two years after staging another mega-event — the 2014 World Cup.

Now come the shocking numbers. 

Brazil, both public and private sectors, spent about $15 billion to host the World Cup, more than 25 times the 2016 annual budget to combat Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads the dengue and chikungunya viruses and that is suspected of spreading the Zika virus. The $15 billion included public infrastructure not directly related to the soccer games, such as airports and urban transportation.

For the Olympics in Rio, the Brazilian government has allocated $9.7 billion from both public and private sectors, which is 16 times more than the allocation for Aedes prevention. The Olympic costs include event administration and sports facilities, but excludes public infrastructure not directly related to the game.

The campaign to combat Zika has received about $475 million so far in 2016. The government has added another about $125 million — or about $600 million total.

Although the Brazilian government has been working hard to cut the Olympic budget — to the extent of asking athletes to pay for the air conditioning in their dorm rooms — it is very likely that the initial budget will be insufficient.

According to a study by Oxford University, all 17 summer and winter games from 1968 to 2012 exceeded their budget, with an average cost overrun of 179 percent. No other type of global mega-projects have such consistency.

“The data thus show that for a city and nation to decide to host the Olympic Games is to take on one of the most financially risky type of mega-project that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril,” said the study.

The study does not include the cost of infrastructure that is not directly related to the game.

If Brazil experiences the average cost overrun of 179 percent, the final cost could balloon to more than $17 billion.

Some might think the comparison between mega-event costs and the Aedes prevention budget is inappropriate, because the Zika outbreak is unexpected while the Olympic games were awarded to Brazil in 2009.

However, the Aedes aegypti mosquito that is thought to spread the Zika virus has a long and dangerous history in Brazil. The cases of dengue, another disease spread by Aedes aegypti, has been surging since 2004. They reached a new height of 1.6 million cases in 2015. Brazil also had the highest rate of dengue cases (number of new cases per population) in Latin America in 2015.

Despite losing ground to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the Brazilian government announced a new round of spending cuts of nearly $6 billion last Friday. The health and education ministry — the government ministry tasked with countering the spread of Aedes mosquitos — is one of the ministries with the largest budget cut.

Planning Minister Valdir Simao has revealed the government's priorities while making the announcement. He said there would be “no lack of funds” for the Aedes aegypti eradication campaign, the Olympic games or poverty relief programs.

But what about the government's priority among these three tasks? It is quite clear from the first chart above.

Because of a currency conversion error, a previous version of this story misstated how much was being spent on combatting Zika.