Kneeling on the sidewalk, Guilherme and his friends are busy preparing their banner ahead of a protest march against the World Cup, which starts in São Paulo on Thursday. In the nation of soccer, people have grown increasingly disenchanted and the Copa is growing more unpopular by the day. Only 48% of Brazilians support the event’s organization. Six years ago, it was 79%.
Guilherme is angry. He says, outraged: “We have huge social problems, but there’s still money to hold a World Cup.” And it’s a lot of money, with more than $11 billion of public money spent on the event, including $3.6 billion on stadiums.
Dilma Rousseff’s government has lost the media battle. It has tried so hard to explain the economic benefits, that the tournament will only cost a small fraction of what is invested in health or education, in short that it is not the money drain that people believe it to be. Still, a growing number of Brazilians are not convinced.
“How many hospitals, how many schools, how much housing could have been built with the money spent on the stadiums?” asks Hugo, a young man with long hair hiding his eyes and a facial piercing. Besides, some of these stadiums, constructed in cities with small soccer teams, such as Brasilia, Manaus and Cuiaba, are fated to become white elephants after the World Cup.
Hugo is not alone in denouncing an “inversion of priorities.” Last June, millions of protesters took to the streets to criticize these extravagant expenditures and to demand, with a certain irony, public services worthy of “FIFA’s standards.” Today, the demonstrations are smaller, but people are still dissatisfied, insists Larissa.
This psychology student lives in Itaquera, the district where the first game, Brazil vs. Croatia, will kick-off the competition. "Rental prices have gone through the roof here,” she says. "In all of the host cities, people have had to leave their homes to make way for urban interventions. Nine workers were killed on the stadiums’ construction sites. And all this happened under a left-wing government!”
Meanwhile, the new transportation infrastructures, presented as the World Cup’s main legacy for the population, are lagging behind. Only 10% have been completed. Even bad weather was called to the rescue to provide an excuse. These so-called “mobility” projects were planned independently from the World Cup, but were not supposed to have started so early. The government had decided to bring the works forward for the competition.
“But it’s now trapped in its own promises and people feel cheated,” notes Almir Leite, journalist for the newspaper Estado de São Paulo.
The authorities assure the population that the most important works for the World Cup, like airports and access routes to the stadiums, will be ready in time. The rest will be delivered later, they pledged. “Still, they need to convince people of that,” says Leite. “They’ll have to keep protesting after the Copa to demand that these works are actually done. There are precedents in Brazil: a long list of construction projects that have been dragging on for years or have been abandoned.”
Roberto, who works in a bank, nods: “The country wasn’t ready to host such an event.” Delays and improvisations suggest that its old shortcomings have gotten the better of this new, swaggering Brazil that the World Cup was supposed to crown.
For example, the amount of money invested in renovating or building the stadiums has doubled in four years, officially to fulfill the standards set by the FIFA. And contrary to the promises made by Ricardo Teixeira, the former president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, it is not the private sector that footed the bill.
The facilities benefitted from public loans and generous tax exemptions. Most of them will however be handed over to the companies that did the works. “In other words, the state paid but the profits will go to private construction companies,” sums up Marcos Alvito, from the National Supporters Association.
For many Brazilians, what matters now is saving face. But according to Roberto, that is far from certain. “What if the situation in the airports is chaotic? What if tourists get robbed? That would damage Brazil’s image,” he says, worried.
Farofa, a cab driver, notes that the President Dilma Rousseff's predecessor, Lula, wanted the Copa in Brazil as a way to cement their hold on power. "But now it may all backfire.”
With much attention now focused on rising COVID-19 cases in the UK and Moscow's new lockdown, a hidden story is in Bulgaria, which claims both Europe's highest death rate and lowest vaccination rate. By now, this reporter knows the drill…
I'd heard some chatter at the co-working place the night before, but after 18 months of coronavirus reporting, and pandemic living, both in my native Sweden and my former home in Paris, I wasn't up for another round on the topic.
The world's highest mortality rate
Perhaps, that same plague fatigue was what caused me — when deciding to set up shop in Bulgaria a month ago — to miss the detail that this is both Europe's least vaccinated country and the one with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate.
I had chosen Sofia (Europe's oldest city!) on the latest stop of my now 12-year hunt for a place to sort of settle down for its cheap rent, cobblestoned city center … and its excellent nationwide WiFi. What more could you ask?
Well, vaccinations, it turned out. So here I was facing the COVID story again, after months exploring France's extra strict lockdown measures, Sweden's famous flirt with herd immunity, the mask morality police and anti-vaxx ideologues everywhere.
Inside a tram in Sofia, Bulgaria
The world's pandemic press this week is focused on the UK, where again cases are skyrocketing, and Moscow's new lockdown. But here in a country of barely 7 million, where I didn't speak the language or know the history, what might I find? After just six weeks, I considered the social dispositions I had discerned, what political leanings I'd nosed out that might explain why 80% of the population still isn't vaccinated.
Where does a hungry reporter go?
I had, for example, observed with great interest that Sofians never jaywalk. Maybe that was the angle? The striking incongruence between social conformity and vaccine refusal? Or maybe the upcoming parliamentary elections held a clue to the bad COVID management.
To answer these questions, I went where any hungry reporter would go: the burger joint on the corner.
- "So new restrictions huh? You think they might lockdown?"
- "Dunno. The usual? No chili?"
- "Right, no chili … So you think more people will get vaccinated now?"
- "We'll see. That'll be four leva."
Having spent the past 18 months among the army of finger-wagging, number-crunching armchair social scientists (both in and out of print) I had suddenly lost my hunger to "explain" why Bulgarians were the world's bad boy of the moment on the COVID front. Consider this just one roving reporter's version of pandemic fatigue.
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