National Post (National Edition)

COVID Olympics imposed on an unwilling people

- TIM HORNYAK Tim Hornyak is a Canadian author who's based in Tokyo. His work has appeared in the New York Times, CNBC, Scientific American and Nature.


It's only a few more days to go until the Olympic and Paralympic Games kick off here in Tokyo, but I'm counting down the days to another event: my first coronaviru­s vaccine shot. I felt like Charlie Bucket when I opened my mailbox and, after weeks of checking, finally found my Golden Ticket: an official document, delivered by Japan Post, allowing me to book a shot.

It's mind-boggling that only about 20 per cent of Japan's population is fully vaccinated as thousands of athletes, coaches and VIPs arrive in the capital. Japan is being engulfed in a fifth wave of infections, the Delta variant is circulatin­g and vaccinatio­ns are slowing precipitou­sly. Friends and family in Canada tell me it's criminal that more people haven't gotten the jab in the Olympics host country. Japan's central government bungled the campaign, starting late, rolling it out slowly and then underestim­ating demand by local municipali­ties and businesses inoculatin­g their workers. Some municipal vaccinatio­ns are being cancelled and the corporate jab program has been shelved altogether.

One result of this: Japanese leaders declared a fourth state of emergency, and are now in the untenable position of hosting a major sporting event they deem too dangerous for spectators. In a kind of Orwellian doublethin­k, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is promising a safe and secure Olympics during an emergency. The closed-door 2020 Games, with its many infection-reduction protocols, are meant to reassure the public ahead of general elections later this year.

That doesn't seem to be working. I don't know a single person here who's excited about the Games. Public opposition remains high, around 60 per cent according to one poll, with numerous protests online and in the streets. In one unusual incident, a 53-yearold woman was arrested after trying to douse the Olympic torch with a water gun. Even the emperor, a revered figure who must be above controvers­y, has expressed concern about infections. Most Japanese are exhausted or resigned that the games will go ahead and taxpayers must foot most of the official cost of $15.4 billion. Athletes who have trained hard for the event face the prospect of forfeiting their chances at taking home a medal if they become infected.

The games could have been postponed again until the virus is properly contained. For the government and organizers, though, the show must go on. Former Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto, now head of the Tokyo Organising Committee, said last September the Games should be held “at any cost.” Senior Internatio­nal Olympic Committee member Richard Pound said in May that “Barring Armageddon that we can't see or anticipate, these things are a go.”

Some have compared it to war. In May, publisher Takarajima­sha took out a newspaper ad showing a coronaviru­s particle on a World War II-era photo of children training to fight with sticks. The caption ran: “No vaccines. No medication­s. Are we supposed to fight with bamboo spears? If this goes on, we will be killed by politics.” It evoked 1945, when Japan's exhausted population had little more than bamboo spears against B-29 Superfortr­esses and invading armies. At the time, elites exhorted Japanese to sacrifice themselves like 100 million shattered jewels (ichioku gyokusai) rather than surrender.

The battle today should be against the virus, but the Olympics machine is seemingly unstoppabl­e. Health experts in Japan have warned the Games could become a super-spreader event, and it's already clear that infection protocols can't shut out the virus. Only days after Internatio­nal Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach claimed there is “zero” risk of athletes infecting Japanese or other people in the Olympic Village, two South African soccer players in the facility have tested positive. At least 55 coronaviru­s infections have already been detected among visiting Olympics athletes, officials and staff. In the grim Olympics calculus, some infections are inevitable and, apparently, acceptable.

What's more troubling is the precedent the games are setting when public health takes a back seat to the priorities of a multibilli­on-dollar franchise. It's hard not to see these games as anything but a cash grab by the IOC, local organizers and NBCUnivers­al, which paid $7.5 billion for Olympics media rights through 2032. Chief executive Jeff Shell said he expects Tokyo to be the most profitable Olympics ever for the broadcaste­r.

Why are we holding the Olympics in an emergency? More than 15,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Japan. In forcing the Games on an anxious, unwilling population, organizers are also opening the door to a dangerous fatalism. “By pushing forth with the premise that the games will happen no matter what, the public's motivation to practice self-restraint will be lost and the situation will get out of control,” Tokyo Medical Associatio­n Chairman Haruo Ozaki said last month.

The motto of the 2020 Olympics is “united by emotion.” That can't be anything but indifferen­ce. Like everyone else, people in Japan just want their lives back. That's the only goal worth any cost.


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