Commentary: Japan was right to keep hosting the Olympics


LONDON: After being postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics are approaching their opening on July 23 amid a chorus of doom. The Japanese and foreigners are planning or even demanding the event be canceled.

Among the supporters of the abandonment of the Games is one of the official partners of the event, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

According to the polls reading, this position is apparently supported by 60 to 80 percent of the Japanese population. And various medical groups argue the Games will put unacceptable strain on Japan’s healthcare system at a time when the pandemic is still raging.

As if to confirm this sense of crisis, the Japanese government has now declared Tokyo to be in a state of emergency for the duration of the Games.

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But this is all quite strange. The cancellation chorus makes it look like Japan is in the throes of a heartbreaking wave of COVID-19 cases. But this is clearly not the case.

The situation is nothing like that of India or Brazil. On July 7, for example, Japan, with a population of 120 million, reported just 1,683 confirmed cases and 17 deaths, down from recent peaks of 6,460 new cases on May 14 and 113 deaths on May 14. May 23.

For comparison, on July 7, Italy, with half the population, reported 829 new cases and 22 deaths, and it has now reopened to vaccinated international travelers.

Officials wearing masks and shields are seen in the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on May 9, 2021. (Photo: Reuters / Issei Kato)

On the same day, the United States, with nearly three times the population, had 15,000 new cases and 226 deaths. The total death toll in Japan for the pandemic as a whole is 14,800, about a tenth that of Italy and about a fiftieth that of the United States.


That’s not to say that Japan should go ahead and host the Olympics no matter what. Welcoming more than 60,000 athletes and their entourage overseas obviously creates a certain risk.

Similar risks were present when spectators were allowed to attend the US Masters golf tournament in early April (when new infections were three times higher than today), and when 135,000 spectators watched the Indianapolis 500 auto race. May 30.

And Japan’s own baseball league hosted games throughout the state of emergency (some with spectators, some without).

Clearly, the alarmist chorus against the Tokyo Games could benefit from a greater sense of proportion. Yes, Tokyo and Okinawa remain in a “state of emergency”, but that is a misnomer.

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Japanese law does not allow the government to assume the kind of emergency powers that have been commonly exercised in Europe. “Emergency” basically means that bars and restaurants cannot stay open very late at night and are discouraged (but not prohibited) from serving alcohol.

Beyond that, department stores are somewhat constrained, and everyone is advised to be as careful as possible. Pandemic life in Japan is much more normal than it is in Europe.


Moreover, given the low infection and death figures in Japan, fears that hospitals will suddenly exceed actual capacity are unwarranted. Japan has more hospital beds per 1,000 people than almost any other country in the world.

Fourth wave of COVID-19 pandemic, in Takatsuki

Satsuki Nakayama, director of the nursing department at Osaka University Medical and Pharmaceutical Hospital, works with her colleague amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Takatsuki, Osaka. (Photo: REUTERS / Akira Tomoshige)

In some cases, the beds and intensive care units that hospitals have chosen to make available to COVID-19 patients are indeed nearly full. But those choices themselves reflected the country’s relatively low rate of infection, illness, hospitalization and death. If hospitals were to find more capacity, they could easily do so.

Japan’s healthcare system is not perfect, of course. Because it is publicly funded but largely privately run, the government cannot force an increase in capacity as easily as the UK National Health Service.

As a result, there have been outrageous cases of COVID-19 patients being turned away and then dying at home, as hospitals have chosen not to make more capacity available. Nonetheless, as the overall mortality figures indicate, these cases were the exceptions and not the norm.

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Unlike most other advanced economies, Japan has seen fewer fatalities in the past 18 months than normal, as the Japanese have been more careful and reduced their travel.


Ultimately, it will not be a COVID-19 crisis in Japan that will determine the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, as such a crisis does not exist.

Vaccinations were painfully slow to start, but 19 million have now been administered, and the total will most likely be considerably higher by the start of the Games, protecting the most vulnerable groups.

In fact, Japan is perfectly capable of keeping visiting athletes and their entourage isolated from the population, especially since the authorities can ban spectators from all events.

Virus outbreak in Japan

Workers wearing face masks walk past the Tokyo National Stadium on Thursday, July 8, 2021 (Photo: Kyodo News via AP)

Given the realities on the ground, the Japanese government is unlikely to join the chorus of cancellations. To do so would be a national humiliation. And because the International Olympic Committee would almost certainly oppose the decision, Japan and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would be liable for damages.

If the Games were held in an American or Chinese city, would America or China cancel them at this point in the pandemic? No, they wouldn’t.

The Tokyo Games will only be canceled if the athletes and their national delegations impose the problem by refusing to travel or compete. The best bet is that the event will go as planned.

Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, is co-director of the Global Commission on Post-Pandemic Policy.


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