Just after dark about 100 km north of Rio de Janeiro, Marlus Jesus was taken to a hospital after hours to check he did not have coronavirus, and then was brought into a room of hotel.
His secret mission? Brazilian soccer star Neymar da Silva Santos JÃºnior and several teammates wanted haircuts.
âI started cutting my hair around 8 pm and finished after midnight,â said the 32-year-old hairstylist. “I cut the hair of seven or eight players.”
He couldn’t resist post a selfie with Neymar on Instagram.
The haircuts, which quickly became national news, burst a strict “health bubble” meant to keep COVID-19 out of the Copa America, the continent’s premier football tournament.
The event has been surrounded by controversy since organizers hastily moved it to virus-stricken Brazil in early June, less than two weeks before kick-off. The original co-hosts Argentina and Colombia had suddenly pulled out, citing an alarming increase in coronavirus cases.
Brazil, where COVID-19 has claimed at least 525,000 lives, just one second in the United States, was a curious second choice. Infections were rising to unprecedented levels as the country entered a devastating third wave. But, to the shock of many, President Jair Bolsonaro enthusiastically accepted Brazil as the host.
“From the start I have been saying, regarding the pandemic: I am sorry for the deaths, but we have to live,” said the far-right populist, who is being investigated by a committee of the Congress for its handling of the pandemic, including possible corruption related to the purchase of vaccines.
Government health officials and Copa America organizers say tournament participants follow strict protocols to avoid infection, as 10 teams compete in four Brazilian cities. Crowds are prohibited from entering the stadiums and players must stay in their rooms when not training or playing matches. Nearly 26,000 coronavirus tests had been administered this week.
But outside health experts say the event complicates Brazil’s fight against the virus.
At least 165 new cases have been directly linked to the tournament. A total of 37 were players, coaches, coaches and other team staff, while 125 were drivers, caterers, cleaners and other service providers for the tournament. Three work for Conmebol, the South American football federation, which provides doctors and referees for the tournament.
“We saw that the majority of cases were not among gamers – it was the people providing services to them,” said Dr Lucia Campos Pellanda, epidemiologist and dean of the Federal University of Health Sciences. Porto Alegre. âIt’s really cruel – to expose people who are already vulnerable. “
Without systematic contact tracing, authorities are unable to determine how these infections may have spread the coronavirus to the general population.
Enforcing protocols – and controlling players off the pitch – has proven difficult. Members of the Chilean team have been accused of partying and inviting prostitutes to their hotel. Members of the Venezuelan team infected with the coronavirus have reportedly broken quarantine, sneaking out of their rooms. Hotel workers who came into contact with the rogue players complained that their testing requests had been ignored for days.
Just over two weeks away from the Tokyo Olympics, Brazil could serve as a grim indicator as to whether giant multinational sporting events can be safely staged as the pandemic still rages on. Already, the Summer Games have sparked protests, as coronavirus cases increase in Asia.
âEven if the risk is minimal, even if an event like this results in only one death, is it worth it? Pellanda asked.
Indignant Brazilians dubbed the tournament “Cova America”, renaming it using the Portuguese word for “grave”. Memes of a coffin hitting coronavirus have been sweeping social media.
Brazil qualified for the final, scheduled for Saturday. But many fans say that even if he wins and retains the title he won in 2019, there will be little to celebrate.
âThere just isn’t the same joy that gambling usually brings,â said JÃºlia Passos, a 21-year-old food service worker. âThis time it brings a lot of sadness. Because he can’t erase what happened, how many people have died.
His family, like so many others, have seen the devastation of COVID-19 up close. Her stepfather spent a week in the hospital, struggling to breathe.
âWith all the pain that Brazil is going through, which we are going through,â Passos said. “Now is not the time to host a big sporting event like this.”
Still, she couldn’t refuse a concert at a stadium in Rio hosting some of the matches. Without a job since March, the young mother needed an income. On game days, she earns $ 20 serving food and drinks to coaches, organizers and security personnel.
Passos has managed to get a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and she and her colleagues are tested for the coronavirus every other day. Nonetheless, she said, the job seems risky, starting with its 25-mile drive from the outskirts of town.
âWe find ourselves so exposed. We take trains full of people to get to work, âshe said. “But I really needed a job.”
His half-brother, JÃºnior Campos, also needed money and also jumped at the chance to land a job at the stadium. Yet even as a football fan the tournament left a bitter taste.
“I lost my uncle and last week I lost my best friend too,” said Campos, 21, who was applying to universities when the pandemic hit. âWe have lost so many people to the virus. And so many people are still dying. It’s absurd to have this event, to pretend that life is back to normal here, as in Europe.
The Euro Cup, which takes place in 11 countries on the continent, began in June against a backdrop of easing containment measures and intensification of vaccination campaigns in many host countries. But even with reduced stadium capacity and rigid travel restrictions, the tournament failed to completely avoid the infection. The World Health Organization recently sounded the alarm, 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. Of particular concern is that new, highly contagious variants could gain traction. The Delta strain – first discovered in India – has been spotted in a city hosting Copa America games, although authorities still do not know if it infected tournament participants.
Over the past two weeks, daily coronavirus cases have declined from record highs in June. But health experts still fear the spikes. And with the lag between infections and illness and hospitalization, they warn that the full effects of the tournament may not become clear for weeks.
Unlike much of the world, Brazil has never closed its doors to contain the virus. All along, Bolsonaro has played down COVID-19 and urged Brazilians to keep working. Lockdowns, he insisted, kill more people than the virus by hurting the economy.
Brazil ultimately lost on both fronts. As the virus spread undeterred across the country, the pandemic has decimated the economy. A social assistance scheme helped keep informal workers afloat last year, but aid was drastically cut as public spending skyrocketed.
Angry Brazilians took to the streets, calling for vaccines, economic aid and the impeachment of the president. Nearly 15 million people are unemployed and hunger has almost doubled, with 19 million people without food during the pandemic.
Faced with economic needs, millions of people risk their health in search of work, including in Copa America.
Recently, Viviane Azevedo served breakfast for the Copa America delegations at a chic hotel in the affluent southern zone of Rio. Still awaiting her second dose of vaccine, she was happy with the extra shifts at the hotel that accompanied the influx of guests.
“It’s really a shame to host this tournament now,” said Azevedo, 43, who returned to being a waitress after being fired from a piercing studio at the start of the pandemic. âBut for us, there is no other way. In today’s Brazil, if you don’t take the risk, you’ll be hungry.
Murilo Castro Vianna, 61, was waiting outside the same hotel in a white shuttle, ready to lead the Uruguayan team to training. Earlier in his 12-hour shift, he dropped off an injured player at the airport. A few days earlier, a fellow driver had been sickened by COVID-19.
âI have spent every day of this pandemic on the streets working,â he said. Before that, he had driven linemen working for an electric company. âHere I am 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 dressed in a face mask as he quickly shaved a little boy’s hair into a mule, as those worn by football stars.
A chair above, an unmasked employee trimmed a customer’s beard and then doused it with a scent spray. The comedic stand-up springs from the television.
Jesus’ secret mission last month It was not the first time that he cut the hair of the elite of Brazilian football. But the Copa America job was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
The bright little store had remained closed for much of the pandemic. Jesus continued to cut hair in clients’ homes, to stay afloat.
“Are we afraid of the virus? Jesus said. âOf course we are afraid. But we have to work.
Ionova is a special correspondent.