A growing chorus is calling for the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics to be canceled, even though the facts on the ground leave the Japanese authorities with no valid reason to do so. The only thing that will stop the event now is a no-show from all the athletes themselves.
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 those who speak in favor of abandon 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% of the Japanese population. And various medical groups argue that 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 feeling of crisis, the Japanese government has now declared that Tokyo will be in a state of emergency for the duration of the Games.
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 120 million inhabitants, reported only 1,683 confirmed cases and 17 deaths, down from 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 travelers. 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 one-tenth that of Italy and about one-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 thrice higher than they are today), and when 135,000 spectators watched the Indianapolis 500 auto race on 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. 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.
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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 inhabitants than almost any other country in the world. 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 can. As a result, there have been outrageous cases of COVID-19 patients being hijacked then die at home, as hospitals chose not to make more capacity available. Nonetheless, as the overall mortality figures indicate, these cases were the exceptions and not the norm. Unlike most other advanced economies, Japan has fewer deaths over the past 18 months than normal, as the Japanese have been more careful and have reduced their movement.
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 significantly 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 public, especially now that the authorities may prohibit spectators of all events.
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. Best if the event goes as planned.