The 28th of July until the 2nd of August was undoubtedly an exciting week for Indonesia at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. Five medals awarded to weightlifters Irawan Eko Yuli, Abdullah Rahmat Erwin, and Aisah Windy Cantika, badminton player Ginting Anothony Sinisuka and gold-winning women’s badminton duo Polii Greysia and Rahayu Apriyani proved to the world the outstanding performance of Indonesia’s athletes.
The Olympics was filled with several triumphant stories like this. However, in the background of the games was the distressing balancing act of its host, Japan. Holding an international sporting event during the deadliest pandemic on the century was not easy on the Land of the Rising Sun. There was much concern among its government, doctors, and people even before the Olympics took place.
When Japan won their bid to host the 2020 games back in 2013, of course they were excited for the opportunity. Hosting the Olympics holds a lot of pride as well as socio-economic and political benefits. It is no wonder that so many countries compete so aggressively and give their all to be the next host of the international event.
Notably, this was not Japan’s first time holding the Olympics. They held it first in 1964 and then it served as Japan’s sign to the world that it had recovered from the destruction of World War II. Thus, hosting it again was as another opportunity for Japan to show their strength and growth. However, in 2013 no one could have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic 7 years later.
Like every other nation, Japan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is not perfect. At least during 2020, Japan demonstrated relatively better resilience than higher income countries like the US and UK in how it mitigated its death toll. Then, it was considered as having a good response comparable to New Zealand, Denmark, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan.
This was mostly attributed to three things. Those were: Japan’s good control of its borders (as seen in the handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship), their well distributed and specialised healthcare facilities towards geriatric diseases and pneumonia (COVID-19’s main symptom), and a pre-existing culture of cleanliness (prevalent use of face-masks and alcohol disinfectant).
However, during the pandemic Japan opted to delay their games to 2021 instead of cancelling the event to many citizens dismay. An opinion survey from earlier this year demonstrated that as much as 70 percent of Japanese people thought to not hold the games in lieu of COVID-19. Despite this, the International Olympic Committee or IOC insisted the grand event to proceed.
Clearly there was a lot of pressure on the Japanese government by opposing forces such as the IOC, their people, regional government, and especially their community of doctors. COVID-19 was simply a large health risk to the safety of the games and the country.
Inversely, cancelling the games outright would be counterproductive to the large investments Japan had already put into preparations and infrastructure. Moreover, not holding the games would be a heavy political blow to Japan in view of the world. The Olympics have only been cancelled three times before, all due to the World Wars. Japan’s economy and political standing stood to suffer.
In the end, the Tokyo Olympics commenced with Japan applying strict COVID-19 policies. Japan banned international fans and athletes’ families from attending in person, imposed mask mandates, denied athletes tested positive to compete, and forbid Olympians from viewing other events to cheer for their team. The government even forbid Japanese fans from attending the games. The Olympics was mostly televised than seen live.
The anomalous games were held for 17 days, during which we saw COVID-19 cases soar in Japan and especially Tokyo. Nationwide, new cases in Japan rose more than tenfold. According to JHU CSSE COVID-19 data, there were 4082 new cases on July 23rd. The same source recorded there being 14352 new cases in Japan by the last day of the games.
So when the Tokyo Olympics finally concluded, it was the Japanese people who were left with the costs. In 17 days, over 150 thousand new cases arose in Japan. Such a growth rate had never been seen in the country since the pandemic began, and its only continuing to grow. Obviously, this caused a lot of debate over the impacts the Olympics had on the health and safety of Japan.
The festive nature of the Olympics clearly gave a false idea to many Japanese residents that they could travel and act more loosely towards government mandates to maintain the 3Cs. After all, athletes had just travelled from around the world to Japan. So far, the Japanese government and the IOC deny the relation. Nevertheless, the amount of new cases continues on to pile up.
Since the 24th of August, Japan has become more proactive in treating COVID-19 with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and the ministry of health strengthening laws on infectious disease. She has ordered hospitals no longer deny beds for COVID-19 patients without reason under pressure of being exposed and should prioritise them over the surgeries on nonurgent patients.
Tokyo has also recently established the ’24 hours oxygen station’, a facility for COVID-19 patients who struggle with breathing set up in Shibuya. The station compliments hospitals in treating patients who are told to return home. Any patients who display worsening symptoms are able to be checked back into hospital while others leave making room for more patients.
Clearly, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics left Japan on a tightrope between its economic and political interests and the safety and health of its people. It is easy to say ‘prioritise health and safety at the cost of the games’ but reality has proven to be more complicated. Now Japan is recuperating from the aftermath, and has demonstrated good efforts to treat the rising amount of COVID-19 cases. We are left to ask, how will Japan stand to go through it again with the Paralympic Games which have just begun?