Coronavirus: Brazil's 'white elephant' World Cup stadiums find new purpose in pandemic

The view of a temporary field hospital set up for coronavirus patients at Pacaembu stadium in Sao Paulo on March 27, 2020.
The view of a temporary field hospital set up for coronavirus patients at Pacaembu stadium in Sao Paulo on March 27, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SAO PAULO (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - The costly football stadiums Brazil built and refurbished in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup are finding new life as health centres for patients with coronavirus.

Local governments have started signing agreements to use the stadiums - once destined for star-studded matches - as makeshift hospitals and vaccine centres to help deal with an expected surge of Covid-19 cases.

With football in the country suspended until further notice, more than half the clubs in Brazil's Serie A have given up their stadiums as authorities in densely populated Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro seek to expand hospital capacity to deal with the crisis.

Current South American champions Flamengo are giving control of their famous Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro to health authorities, said club president Rodolfo Landim.

"In this grim moment, I wanted to invite our great Red and Black nation to renew hope and work for better days. Let us take care of our elders, help those who need it most," he wrote in a message to supporters.

Authorities in Sao Paulo - Brazil's biggest city - said they would install 200 beds in a field hospital at the Pacaembu municipal stadium to relieve pressure on the city's hospitals. Work is already underway at the venue - where football legend Pele played hundreds of matches for Santos FC - while two of the city's big clubs were also lending a hand.

Santos announced that a temporary clinic would be set up in one of the lounges inside its Vila Belmiro stadium.

Corinthians said they have made their Itaquerao stadium and their training headquarters available "so that the authorities can evaluate how they can be used to combat the spread of the disease".

On March 23, Allianz Parque, home of the Palmeiras football club in Sao Paulo, a line of people snaked around the outside of the stadium as if a match were about to start. But these were not football fans - they were high-risk Brazilians spaced 3m apart and there to get flu shots.

 
 
 
 

For Brazilians, it is a useful transformation of structures dubbed "white elephants" that later became symbols of corruption in Latin America's largest economy.

Back in 2014, the idea of Brazil spending US$11 billion (S$15.7 billion) to host the World Cup was a contentious one, with locals and foreigners alike arguing that a nation struggling to provide basic health care, education and even sewage has no right diverting resources to a football championship.

As construction began, the staggering price tag for the stadiums fuelled a frenzy of protests. One common chant: "We want hospitals with Fifa standards!"

In neighbouring Argentina, six major clubs including Buenos Aires' Boca Juniors and River Plate have also opened their gates should officials need the space.

Brazil currently has over 4,000 confirmed infections and deaths top 100.

A week ago, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta had predicted the virus would reach its peak in the country between April and June, anticipating a drop in Covid-19 infections from September.

Mandetta warned the health system in the country of 210 million people could reach saturation by the end of April.