— Published 31 March 2021

The Tokyo Games, a health risk but not an economic one

Seiko Hashimoto, the new chair of the Tokyo Games Organising Committee, was not mistaken. Barely arrived last month in the office vacated by Yoshiro Mori, she explained that her priority would be to restore confidence among the Japanese public. According to the latest events, the former speed skater will also have to try to turn the opinion of the medical community.

With less than 120 days to go, as the Olympic flame wraps up the first week of its tour of the archipelago without any incidents, skeptics are being heard. And they are making noise.

Example: Norio Sugaya, an infectious disease specialist at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama. The Japanese expert does not believe in the relevance of hosting the Tokyo Games next summer. He told The Associated Press, “It’s best not to host the Olympics given the health risks. They are very high in Japan. Japan is dangerous, it’s not a safe place at all. Tens of thousands of foreigners will enter the country, including the media, in no time. The challenges are going to be enormous“.

According to Kyodo News, around 90 000 accredited foreigners are expected to enter Japan for the Olympics. Among them, 30 000 athletes, coaches and members of delegations. The remainder of the contingent, estimated at 60 000 people, includes media representatives and officials. The Japanese news agency understands that the Japanese authorities would like to reduce that number by half.

According to Norio Sugaya, a prerequisite for holding the Tokyo Games should be the vaccination of 50 to 70% of the population. To date, less than 1% of Japanese people have been vaccinated, mostly healthcare professionals. At the current pace of the campaign, the general public will not join the movement until the Games open on Friday 23rd of July.

Another story, just as alarmist: Toshio Nakagawa. A leader, too, president of the Japanese Medical Association. The Japanese observe the infection curve in Japan. Obviously, he does not detect any good. “To prevent a fourth wave, we must act with force and extremely quickly“, he pleads.

For Spencer Fox, associate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, an expert in infectious disease modeling, the Tokyo Games could turn into a ticking time bomb if something goes wrong. “Given the number of people who are coming and the prevalence of the disease around the world, the Games could lead to a large number of infections and spread internationally when people return home,” he suggests. “The precautions provided are excellent, but you can never completely reduce the likelihood of infections”.

The only good news at the moment, brandished from Washington by Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF): the Japanese economy seems to be able to recover from all scenarios, including the most pessimistic.

The Bulgarian economist and politician argues, with figures to back it up, that the decision not to allow foreign visitors will have minimal impact on the country’s coffers.

In terms of the economic impact, the absence of spectators from overseas will be very minor“, she told Kyodo News. “We have done the math, today we can conclude that this decision will not harm the economic recovery in Japan. The country has a very diverse and dynamic economy. It does not depend on income from hosting the Olympics”.

For Kristalina Georgieva, Japan could even decide to postpone the Games again – a scenario ruled out since the first hour – or even cancel them altogether, without fear of seeing its economy put to its knees. “It wouldn’t be a major factor” for the Japanese economy, she pleads.