RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 5, 2016:

Carnival weekend gets rolling in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, giving the city a chance to wiggle its hips and shake off worries over Zika and the economy.

The annual mega-bash famed for lavish – and skimpily dressed – samba parades and all-night street dancing couldn’t come at a better time for morale.

Like the rest of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is struggling to respond to fears that the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus causes microcephaly, a horrific birth defect in babies.

Throw in the country’s worst recession since the 1930s, strikes, more than 10% inflation, brutal crime – and no wonder Cariocas, as locals call themselves, can’t wait to party.

“The carnival is for forgetting all this,” said Teresa Curi, 61, who was selling costumes in an old Rio neighbourhood of narrow streets, small stores, and thick crowds.

Officially the carnival begins when Mayor Eduardo Paes, who is also overseeing work to host the Summer Olympics this August, symbolically hands over the city keys to the carnival leader, known as King Momo at 1300 GMT.

The dancing king and his court will then preside over the five-day extravaganza, which peaks on Sunday and Monday nights with parades by competing samba schools, featuring dancers in wildly imaginative costumes, or alternatively smothered in sequins and feathers – and almost nothing else.

Some five million people, including one million tourists, are expected to take part citywide.

Gate crashers

Gate crashing this year’s show, though, is the Zika-carrying mosquito and threat of microcephaly, which has led the World Health Organisation to declare an international emergency and several governments to advise pregnant women not to travel to Brazil.

Brazilian officials have echoed that warning for Olympics fans, but at the same time are desperately trying to eradicate the mosquito.

Soldiers are being deployed to help health workers in a door-to-door campaign to teach people about clearing up stagnant water, which mosquitoes use to breed in, while in Rio special teams are regularly checking and fumigating sites like the Sambadrome and Olympic stadiums.

Another drag on the party atmosphere is the country’s prolonged economic recession.

Big ensembles competing in the Sambadrome say that city funding has dried up and that private sponsors are also running scared, while the plunging value in the national currency means importing mostly Chinese fabrics for costumes has driven up prices.

“The situation has been difficult for four or five years, but this year was worse because everyone is in crisis and prices are rising,” the administrator of the Uniao da Ilha samba school, Marcio Andre Mehry de Souza, said.

DIY partying

The picture is more mixed when it comes to the other side of Rio’s carnival frenzy – the street parties and impromptu neighbourhood parades.

Some are huge, like the Bola Preta party which will be held in central Rio on Saturday and which hopes to attract up to two million people. Others come with a message, like one party where samba was put to lyrics urging dancers to “Chase away Zika!”

But many street parties are purely amateur affairs involving colorful, low-cost costumes, lots of live samba music, and rivers of beer.

A saleswoman at Souad Modas, a costume store, said times were tough.

“The place is almost empty. In previous years it was crammed with people. I was able to sell 60,000 reais (about RM9,700) worth of costumes in a week, while now I’ll be lucky to sell 15,000 reais (RM2,400) worth,” she said.

Marcelo Servos, 47, who owns Casa Turuna, one of the oldest costume retailers, said he was doing good trade but at the lower end of the range.

One of the shoppers in the crammed store, 29-year-old lawyer Elaine Brito, said she was looking for discounts.

“We’re buying slightly cheaper costumes this year,” she said as she examined a tiny black and white checkerboard dress.

Also, unlike most years when she joins the stream of locals heading out of Rio for a calming break from the carnival, this year Brito’s staying for the duration.

“Many more are staying to keep costs down,” she said.

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