Organizing a mega-event in the middle of a corona wave, it seems like a bad idea. The President of the Japanese Union of Doctors therefore wants the Olympic Games to be cancelled. The corona situation in Japan is too bad, he thinks, and he expects that in July, when the Games begin, it will be so. He fears the creation of an “Olympic” coronamutant.
Yet the Japanese government wants to keep the Games going. After last year‘s postponement, another postponement for the International Olympic Committee is no longer an option. And cancellation would mean a financial debacle and loss of face. “The prestige of the government is at stake,” says Radboud Molijn, Japanese expert and former director of the Dutch-Japanese Chamber of Commerce. “An enormous amount of money has been put into it.”
State of emergency
The pressure on the government to stop is growing. Polls show that about three-quarters of the Japanese want the Games to stop. Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper and official partner of the Olympic Games, called for the cancellation of the event yesterday.
According to the newspaper, the risks to safety and care are too great. The newspaper has one point: the coronapandemic is far from under control in Japan. Thousands of infections occur every day. Among other things, the state of emergency applies in the host city of Tokyo.
“ The number of infections is now much higher than a year ago, when the Games were canceled,” says Molin. “Care is heavily burdened and hospitals are crowded in some cities. So many people ask themselves: why are they going on now?”
Meanwhile, vaccination is slow. Six percent of the population have had a shot, about 2.5 percent have been fully vaccinated.
In addition to a vaccination system that does not work for a meter, there is “reluctance” among the population to vaccinate, says Anoma van der Veere, researcher at the Leiden Asia Centre and at the University of Osaka. “I notice among young people that they prefer to wait and see what the effects of the vaccines are on the elderly.”
Among the Japanese there is “a lot of irrational fear” of vaccination, says Molijn. “Japanese want everything 100 percent perfect. And vaccines are not 100 percent perfect.”
Van der Veere: “This makes it very difficult to get the population vaccinated at a reasonable level in the short term.”
Public and sportsmen separated
Despite this, the government wants to continue the Games. Professor of infectious diseases Andy Hoepelman thinks that‘s safe. The former water polo player participated in the 1976 Olympics. “I really appreciate how important this is for athletes. Everyone lives to it. They’re professionals, they‘ll do everything they can to avoid getting infected.”
Today, Hoepelman is head of infectious diseases at the UMC in Utrecht and advised the Olympic organization in Tokyo. “Most of the athletes will be vaccinated and they will be tested two or three times before they arrive in Tokyo. During their stay, they are tested daily, just like the officials.”
The fear of the Japanese toparts that warns against the emergence of an ‘Olympic‘ mutant, a mixture of different variants, is unnecessary, says Hoepelman. According to him, all measures are unlikely to allow viruses to enter Japan with foreign guests.
There are also measures to prevent the public from infecting athletes. “The starting point is that the public and the athletes do not get in touch with each other.” No one can just walk into restaurants where athletes eat, for example.
Hoepelman is more concerned about the largely unvaccinated Japanese audience itself, which is now dealing with a fast-paced virus.
Van der Veere: “People ask themselves: why should we put the population at risk for sport? Why do we have to make sacrifices for the Olympics? We must first master the pandemic.”
‘Cancel means stepping‘
Yet it seems that eventually the Games will continue. “The party that is now in power has been promoting and organizing for eight or nine years,” says Van der Veere. “The Games have always been a showpiece and had to put Japan back on the world stage after recessions and after Fukushima.”
Canceling would therefore take a high political toll. “It would mean that the Prime Minister should quit. While if it goes on and it’s a success, the government can get a lot out of it.”