Zika can't stop Brazil's Carnival party

Posted at 2:38 AM, Feb 05, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian Carnival could be called a hungry mosquito's dream — five days of non-stop street parties that bring together millions of revelers in an inviting mass of bare ankles, uncovered legs and denuded torsos. So the mosquito-borne Zika virus might be expected to dampen this year's debauchery.

But despite warnings to cover up and slather on repellent, many insist the show will go on as it always has, in just a sprinkling of sequins and a few puffs of feather. Pants, long-sleeve shirts and bug spray, they say, are antithetical to the hedonistic, out-of-control spirit of Carnival.

"We need joy," said Angela Pessanha, a self-described "Carnival nut" and owner of a home furnishings store. "And Carnival is the easiest way of doling out a stiff dose of joy to everyone."

This year's celebrations, which begin Friday, come at a time when Brazil has little to celebrate. Latin America's largest country is mired in its worst recession in generations, impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff are looming, a snowballing corruption investigation of the state oil company has taken down key political figures and rising unemployment and inflation are hurting the pocketbooks of average people.

And then there is Zika, a virus that researchers here have linked to a birth defect that can affect the development of fetuses' brains, leaving newborns with long-lasting health and developmental problems.

But, many Brazilians say they are inured to the vagaries of a boom-and-bust economy, unfazed by the near constant stream of corruption scandals and have long lived amid outbreaks of dengue, another virus transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads Zika.

"I've put it all out of my mind," said college student Pedro Maciel, as he filled up a shopping cart with 12-packs of beer and bottle after bottle of the cheapest domestic vodka — "fuel" he hoped would see his group of 16 friends, visiting Rio de Janeiro from southern Brazil, through at least the first day of the festivities. "Of course these are all important issues that as a Brazilian I care about, but I won't give them a second thought till the day Carnival ends."

The world's Carnival capital, Rio, has been less hard-hit by the Zika outbreak than the country's poor northeastern region, where most cases both of the virus and the birth defect microcephaly have been concentrated. Still, epidemiologists have called Carnival an "explosive cocktail" for the spread of Zika due to the potent combination of heat, crowds and exposed skin.

This has prompted Rio authorities to step up their efforts against the mosquito. Fumigators have been plying the Sambadrome, where thousands of dancers in ensembles consisting of platform heels, a few strategically placed spandex triangles and sparkly body paint will mesmerize during this weekend's samba school parades.

Health workers will be deployed to many of the city's more than 500 street parties, or "blocos," where thousands of revelers defy the Southern Hemisphere midsummer sun to drink, dance, sweat and rub shoulders — and other body parts.

They're also urging revelers to cover up, but those admonitions appear to be falling on deaf ears, judging by the amount of bare skin on display at the pre-Carnival "blocos" that have flooded the streets in recent days.

Tuesday's announcement by health officials that a person in Texas has become infected with Zika through sex may put another kink into Carnival, where promiscuity is held as a core value. Competitions to see who can rack up the most make-out partners are common, and things often get more hot and heavy than simple snogging.

The party won't be happening everywhere. The 50,000-strong municipality of Capivari in Sao Paulo state has cancelled the City Hall-funded Carnival celebrations, saying it intends to invest the $25,000 in savings into efforts to stamp out Aedes. Official Carnival festivities have also been nixed in dozens of other cities nationwide due to budget constraints.

Even in places where Carnival is rolling on, apparently unscathed by the chaos afflicting the country, this year's festivities are shaping up to be leaner than usual.

Regina Rodrigues Alves, who hawks kitty-ear tiaras, pirate eye patches, made-in-China plastic crowns and other Carnival essentials at a stand in Rio's beachfront Ipanema neighborhood, says sales have been appreciably down from last year.

"You can tell people are trying to scrimp and save. They're now trying to bargain you down, or not even buying at all," said 58-year-old Alves, adding she's seen revelers dragging along their own portable coolers to save on alcohol.