The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has sparked outrage after approving plans to hold South America’s answer to the European championship in his Covid-stricken country despite warnings Brazil is steaming into a potentially calamitous third wave of infections.
The Copa América was originally due to be co-hosted by Colombia and Argentina, but their struggles with deadly street protests and coronavirus put paid to those plans.
On Monday, in a surprise move, the South American Football Confederation, Conmebol, announced that Brazil, which has the world’s second highest Covid death toll, would host the footballing event between 13 June and 17 July. “I want to say a special thanks to President Jair Bolsonaro and his cabinet for hosting the tournament,” tweeted Conmebol’s Paraguayan president, Alejandro Domínguez.
The announcement caused an immediate outcry in Brazil, where more than 462,000 lives have been lost in a Covid outbreak Bolsonaro stands accused of catastrophically mishandling.
Renan Calheiros, a Brazilian senator who is the rapporteur of a congressional inquiry into Bolsonaro’s Covid response, blasted the “unbelievable” idea of holding what he claimed would be a “championship of death”. Calheiros urged Brazilian players such as Neymar to refuse to take to the field “while your relatives and acquaintances continue to die”.
Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s top sports writers, branded the competition the “Cova América” or “Grave of the Americas”.
“There is no justification for bringing nine South American teams, and potentially new variants, to one of the epicentres of the pandemic, wasting resources and attention that should be directed towards our thousands of infected patients,” he wrote.
Others called the competition as the “Cepa América” – “the Strain of the Americas” – and demanded the Brazilian government reversed its decision which comes with an average of nearly 2,000 lives still being lost each day.
“This is shameful,” one of Brazil’s best-known commentators, Luís Roberto, told the Sportv network. “It’s a provocation. It is a slap in the face of all Brazilians.”
There was little sign Bolsonaro’s administration was rethinking its move on Tuesday. “As far as it’s up to me, and all the ministers – health included – it’s a done deal,” the far-right populist told supporters outside the presidential residence.
South America is one of the regions worst-hit by the Covid pandemic, with Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay all enduring the most dramatic moments of their epidemics.
On Monday Peru revealed that its true Covid death toll was nearly three times the official figure of 68,000, with at least 180,000 fatalities. More than 1 million lives have been lost to the disease across Latin America and the Caribbean, about a third of the official global total, even though the region is home to less than 9% of the world’s population.