BY KOJI WADA
As the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics near, athletes, coaches and staff are starting to arrive in Japan amid still strong concerns about the risk of COVID-19 infections spreading during the sporting events.
In Japan, some municipalities are seeing a supply crunch of vaccines as vaccination rollout speeds up. Cases of new infection, meanwhile, are declining in some major cities but in the past few weeks, Tokyo is beginning to see a rebound.
The government announced Thursday that the capital will be under a state of emergency from Monday through Aug. 22, two days before the Paralympics will kick off. But it’s entirely possible for another wave to arrive before the opening ceremony, and the cooperation of the public is crucial in preventing that from happening.
In other parts of the world, namely South America and Africa, COVID-19 is spreading. There are still many countries and regions where vaccination rates continue to be low and the mindset against the coronavirus varies depending on the situation in each country.
Therefore, measures put in place by organizers may look good on paper. But they are bound to be hard to implement in practice.
For one, infections could occur among athletes, coaches, staff, volunteers and spectators. When they do, the degree of punishment the International Olympic Committee hands down to violators could trigger diplomatic issues. It would be unfortunate for an athlete to lose their chance at winning a gold medal because they infected someone or became infected by a teammate.
Members of the Ugandan and Serbian team have tested positive after entering the country. It is necessary to assume that more cases like this will emerge leading up to and during the games.
To prevent a handful of infections from turning into a cluster or a large outbreak, it is imperative for organizers and officials to reduce the risk of infection.
Multiple measures should be taken, including increasing vaccinations for participants, more frequent testing and avoiding unnecessary close contacts.
Journalists from around the world will be visiting Japan, and there is a possibility that negative impressions of the country will be widely reported to the world. We need to think about how Japan will communicate to the world if daily new cases continue to rise even under a state of emergency and the hospital occupancy rate rises.
Therefore, the organizers’ decision Thursday to ban spectators from venues in Tokyo, as well as Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, is a desirable choice.
Hosting the games at a time when people are being asked to stay indoors, avoid large gatherings and remain vigilant, may impact their willingness to comply with voluntary restrictions, and therefore lessen the impact of the country’s coronavirus measures.
If the government allowed spectators to the venues in large cities, it would have sent contradictory messages to people watching the games from home, who will see all those spectators and think it’s safe to lower their guard.
In June, an independent panel of experts comprising 26 doctors and medical researchers in Japan who have contributed to the COVID-19 response told Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the president of the Tokyo Organising Committee, Seiko Hashimoto, that holding the games without spectators would be “desirable.”
The important point now is for organizers to urge those watching the games to avoid gathering in groups either at home or out on the streets.
With the spectator ban, the risks of infection have been reduced. But it’s also important to make sure that infections won’t spread outside the venues such as bars and restaurants where people may gather around to watch the games together.
Crowd behavior could also have implications beyond Japan’s borders.
People are finding new ways to support and root for the athletes and connect with people without spreading the infection. In Japan, it is likely that people are going to be asked to watch the games at home. They will be asked to wear masks and not to shout loudly when they watch the games, especially if they are in a group setting.
Even under these circumstances, Japan needs to set an example for ways to watch and cheer during sporting events amid a pandemic. People can enjoy the games by connecting with one another via social media and other means using the innovative information communication technologies — ways that will prevent the risk of infection.
Japan should also keep in mind how the nation will be viewed by other countries after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. For many people around the world, Japan is seen as blessed, especially economically, having secured enough vaccines for all its citizens — even if the rollout has not been as quick as in other developed countries. Some countries are not so lucky, with many unable to meet the needs of their citizens.
With the Olympics, the world is now paying attention to Japan and we need to act responsibly. This is an opportunity, but at the same time, it can be a risk. We need to imagine how people in other countries will react to the Olympic Games and help prevent the further spread of the virus.
The Japanese public and the rest of the world need to know that Japan remains in a difficult situation and that, while steps are being taken to hold the Tokyo Games safely, the pandemic is still ongoing.
The country must set a good example and make sure that our children and grandchildren are respected by the rest of the world. And we can do that by making the Olympic and Paralympic Games a success.
Koji Wada is a professor on public health at International University of Health and Welfare. He is also a member of a health ministry’s coronavirus expert panel.