Did the Tokyo Olympics drive Japan’s COVID-19 surge?

Since the Olympics began, Japan has seen a record surge in infections that has put its hospitals on the brink.

Protesters demonstrate in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo, Japan, Monday, August 2, 2021 [Kantaro Komiya/ AP]
Protesters demonstrate in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo, Japan, Monday, August 2, 2021 [Kantaro Komiya/ AP]

When the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared the Tokyo Summer Games closed on Sunday, he called this year’s competition one of “hope, solidarity and peace”.

“For the first time since the pandemic began, the entire world came together,” Thomas Bach said at the largely empty National Stadium in Tokyo. “Billions of people around the globe were united by emotion, sharing moments of joy and inspiration. This gives us hope.”

Indeed, for those who followed the Games on television, bereft of spectators the dazzling displays of sportsmanship did offer diversion from the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic – including from the accounts of panic in the host city’s hospitals as a resurgence in infections resulted in bed shortages.

Now with the Olympic flame doused, the cameras turned off and the last remaining athletes headed home, it is the Japanese public that is left weighing the costs and the benefits of the IOC’s decision to push ahead with the Summer Games during the pandemic.

Analysts say there is little reason to celebrate. They say the Olympics has only worsened Japan’s COVID-19 outbreak and left its taxpayers saddled with a $15bn bill, even as the IOC raked in billions from broadcasting rights.

“There have been no benefits whatsoever for everyday working people in Japan,” said Jules Boykoff, a former Olympic-level athlete and a professor of political science at the Pacific University in the United States. “The IOC decided to gamble with their health in order to stage an Olympics that would financially benefit the IOC.”

Too early to tell?

Since the Olympics began on July 23, some 170,000 people in Japan have contracted COVID-19, according to official figures. At least 178 have died. Tokyo – which is under a state of emergency until the end of August – is logging record numbers of cases, with new infections reaching a pandemic high of 5,042 on Thursday.

Japan’s total caseload has now crossed one million, while a total of 15,309 people have died. These figures are low compared with those seen in most countries around the world but with Japanese hospitals on the brink and only a quarter of the Japanese public vaccinated, experts fear the number of infections and deaths could rise dramatically. Calls are also growing for a nationwide state of emergency as well as constitutional changes to allow authorities to implement the kind of hard lockdowns seen elsewhere in the world.

The IOC denies any link between the Olympics and Japan’s coronavirus surge.

The group said on Saturday that its regimen of daily tests for athletes as well as a “bubble system” that separated those accredited to the Olympics from the wider Japanese public had prevented transmission between the two groups. It said it has logged a total of 430 positive cases since July 1, having carried out more than 630,000 screening tests.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has agreed with the IOC’s assessment.

“I don’t think that the Tokyo Olympics are the cause of the surge,” he told reporters on Friday.

Analysts dispute that assessment, however, with some saying it is too early to draw any conclusions on whether the bubble has indeed held up.

“The positivity in the bubble seems to be much lower than that in Tokyo downtown, suggesting that the bubble has worked to some extent for now,” said Kei Sato, an associate professor at the Institute of Medical Science, University of Tokyo. “But it may be too early to tell.”

Attention and money

Others, however, say the fact 430 people – most of them Japanese officials and contractors – tested positive shows that the bubble was a lot more porous than organisers claimed.

“New cases were reported every single day. Unless all of them are brought directly from overseas, one cannot claim that the bubble held up,” said Satoko Itani, associate professor at Kansai University in Japan.

While it may be “challenging to prove a direct causal relationship” between the positive cases among those accredited to the Olympics and the coronavirus surge in Tokyo, Itani said it was “obvious” that the hosting of the Olympics had an effect on people’s behaviour, giving them a false sense of normalcy and a “de facto green light to travel”.

Television coverage during the past two weeks also focused on “counting medals” – Japan hauled in a record 27 gold medals this time – rather than covering the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, they added.

All of this ultimately resulted in the flouting of coronavirus safety measures.

Indeed, local media reported of a “party-like atmosphere” in some Tokyo neighbourhoods as people crowded into bars to watch Olympic events in defiance of fines for breaching the city’s emergency rules.

“The hosting of the Olympics and the world gathering in Tokyo has given the wrong signal to the population,” said Barbara Holthus, a sociologist and deputy director at the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo. “Why keep to the government desired ‘self-restraint’, if the Olympics are going on at the same time? Why should they not travel throughout the country, when the world travels to them?”

Suga’s desire to hold a successful Olympics has “prevented the government from throwing all they can into fighting the pandemic,” she said. “Attention and money were diverted from the fight against COVID.”

This lack of care is evident in the difference in measures at the Olympic venues and outside.

“The infection within the village was kept relatively low due to mass testing and high coverage of vaccination, which is quite a contrast to the situation outside the village – low testing and vaccine coverage, with rapidly increasing case numbers and overwhelmed hospital care,” noted Kenji Shibuya, a prominent Japanese public health expert.

“It clearly shows that unless the pandemic is tackled both within and outside the Olympic venues, holding a safe and secure Olympics is extremely challenging.”

Noting the IOC decision to push ahead with the Olympics disregarded the wishes of the Japanese public, Shibuya said Tokyo 2020 has “left a scar on Japanese society” and increased division and distrust.

Test for Suga

One politician who stands to lose most from the discontent is Suga, who is facing a party leadership race ahead of a general election later this year. A survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper on Monday showed support for Suga slid to a record low of 28 percent for the first time since he took office.

The test for Suga, according to Donna Weeks, a professor of political science at Musashino University in Tokyo, will be how he responds to the deteriorating pandemic conditions.

He and his allies will also need to convince his electorate that the rising numbers “are not their fault, but also not as a result of the Olympics”.

“It is a fine line they will be treading,” she said, adding: “There is also the question of whether or not they can more effectively improve the vaccination rate, the rollout for which remains rather slow.”

Only time will make clear the true cost of Japan’s hosting of the Olympics, with the Paralympics are due to get underway on August 24.

While some of the damage can be calculated and recovered, as Itani at Kansai University notes “the lives that are being lost right now and from now cannot be”.

The biggest winner of all then appears to be the IOC, which will walk away from the Tokyo Games with its billions of dollars in broadcasting revenue comfortably intact.

Source: Al Jazeera

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