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The Tokyo games will go on

Jul 11,2021 - Last updated at Jul 11,2021

LONDON — Having been postponed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Olympic Games are approaching their opening on July 23 amid a chorus of doom. Japanese and foreigners alike are predicting, or even outright demanding, the event’s cancellation.

Among those coming out in favour of scrapping the Games is one of the event’s official partners, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Depending on one’s reading of the polls, that position is apparently supported by 60-80 per cent of the Japanese population. And various medical groups argue that the Games will put unacceptable pressure on Japan’s health system at a time when the pandemic is still raging. As if to confirm this sense of crisis, the Japanese government has now declared that Tokyo will be under a state of emergency throughout the Games.

But this is all rather strange. The cancellation chorus makes it sound like Japan is in the grip of a harrowing wave of COVID-19 cases. But that plainly is not the case. The situation is nothing like that of India or Brazil. On July 7, for example, Japan, with 120 million people, reported just 1,683 confirmed cases and 17 deaths, down from the recent peaks of 6,460 new cases on May 14 and 113 deaths on 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 travellers. On the same day, the United States, with nearly three times the population, had 15,000 new cases and 226 deaths. Japan’s total death toll for the entire pandemic is 14,800, roughly one-tenth of Italy’s and about one-fiftieth of America’s.

This is not to suggest that Japan should barrel ahead and host the Olympics, come what may. Accommodating more than 60,000 athletes and their entourages from overseas plainly creates some 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 they are today), and when 135,000 spectators watched the Indianapolis 500 motor race on May 30. And Japan’s own baseball league has been holding 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 this is a misnomer. Japanese law does not permit the government to assume the sort of emergency powers that have commonly been exercised in Europe. The “emergency” basically means that bars and restaurants cannot stay open very late in the evening and are discouraged (but not barred) from serving alcohol. Beyond that, department stores are a bit constrained, and everyone is advised to be as careful as possible. Pandemic life in Japan is a lot more normal than it is in Europe.

Moreover, given Japan’s low infection and death figures, fears that hospitals will suddenly exceed true capacity are misplaced. Japan has morehospital beds per 1,000 people than almost any other country in the world. In some cases, the beds and intensive-care units that hospitals have chosen to make available for COVID-19 patients have indeed been nearing full occupancy. But those choices were themselves a reflection of the country’s fairly low rate of infection, sickness, hospitalisation, and death. If hospitals had to find more capacity, they would easily be able to do so.

Japan’s health system isn’t perfect, of course. Because it is publicly financed but largely privately run, the government cannot force an increase in capacity as easily as Britain’s National Health Service can. As a result, there have been some scandalous cases of COVID-19 patients being turned and then dying at home, owing to hospitals choosing not to make more capacity available. Nonetheless, as the overall mortality numbers indicate, these cases have been exceptions, not the norm. Unlike most other advanced economies, Japan has had fewer deaths during the past 18 months than in normal times, because Japanese have been more careful and have cut down on travel.

Ultimately, it will not be a COVID-19 crisis in Japan that determines the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, because there is no such crisis. Vaccinations have been painfully slow to get under way, but 19 million have now been administered, and the total will most likely be considerably higher by when the Games begin, protecting the most vulnerable groups. In fact, Japan is perfectly capable of keeping the visiting athletes and their entourages insulated from the population, particularly now that the authorities may prohibit spectators from all events.

Given the realities on the ground, the Japanese government is unlikely to accede to the cancellation chorus. Doing so would mean 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 being held in a US or Chinese city, would America or China cancel them at this stage in the pandemic? No, they would not. The Tokyo Games will be canceled only if athletes and their national delegations force the issue by refusing to travel or compete. The best bet is that the event will proceed as planned.


Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is co-director of the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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