Tokyo Olympics: Gamble between people’s health, livelihoods and lives

With five weeks to go for the opening of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, many people continue to question the decision to hold the Games and risk unleashing another wave of infections that could derail the country’s fragile economic recovery.

Though foreign spectators have been barred from attending the Games, the event will still draw athletes and officials from around the world, increasing the risk of new variants of COVID-19 being introduced into Japan.

Public health experts fear the Games could become a “superspreader” event. Last month, the head of the Japan Doctors Union warned the gathering could even spawn a new “Tokyo Olympic” strain of COVID-19.

Japan is on the downslope of its fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, and its third declared state of emergency is set to ease next week.

Though the government has ramped up its vaccination campaign it is well behind most developed nations. As of Jun 15, Japan had the second worst vaccination record among the 38 OECD countries, with 20.9 doses per 100 people. Contrast that with the United Kingdom’s 106.1 doses per 100 people, and the US rate of 93.3 doses per 100.

A growing chorus of voices encompassing nurses’ unions, medical associations, prominent business leaders including the heads of Rakuten and SoftBank have been calling for the Olympics to be postponed again, or outright cancelled to shield the country’s already stretched healthcare system and to keep its economic rebound on track.

Like other nations the world over, Japan saw its economy badly battered last year by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. But its crawl back to pre-pandemic health has lagged behind that of peers. Virus emergencies saw its rebound falter in the first three months of this year when the economy shrank 3.9 percent from the previous quarter, according to government data.

Though many economists see the country posting modest growth in the second quarter, some fear that recovery could be dealt a severe blow should the Olympics unleash more COVID-19 damage.

The former Bank of Japan economist estimates that three pandemic-related shutdowns have so far cost the country $58.1 billion, $57.2 billion and $29 billion respectively.

If the Games cause another wave of infections that leads to a state of emergency it could cause the economy to shrink again in the final three months of this year.

When weighed against how much revenue the Games could generate $15.1 billion to $16.4 billion, depending on whether domestic fans fill venues to capacity.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration has been accused of failing to produce a convincing safety plan. A recent poll suggests 83 percent of Japan’s residents oppose holding the Games as scheduled.

If the Games are a success, and infections do not rise it would be a win-win situation, but the gamble is between people’s health, livelihoods and lives.