The olympics in japan and the corona virus: unclear prospects

While Tokyo Olympics organizers brush aside doubts, experts say things could get tight for the big event.

Taking precautions against viruses: Tokyoites playing rugby Photo: Kyodo/reuters

"At the moment, it would be difficult to hold the Olympics," the respected professor told an assembled press. Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist from Tohoku University in the northern Japanese metropolis of Sendai, had come all the way to Tokyo to voice his concerns. At the Foreign Correspondents Club, a press club for foreign reporters in the Japanese capital, Oshitani presented a view that has been little heard. It did not sound like reassurance or control.

"We have to find the best way to hold safe Olympic Games," Oshitani stressed during his talk Wednesday. "Right now, we don’t have an effective strategy." Oshitani, who advised the World Health Organization (WHO) during the outbreak of the respiratory disease Sars almost 20 years ago, is hopeful that the situation will have eased by July. Then the world’s largest sporting event, which is expected to bring millions of visitors to Japan, could also take place as planned. But there is still a long way to go.

Currently, the coronavirus, officially now called Covid-19, continues to spread every day. Along with the epicenter of China, where well over 75,000 infected people have now been identified, Japan is one of the most severely affected countries. The cruise ship "Diamond Princess" had to be quarantined off the coast of Yokohama for two weeks until Wednesday with 3,700 passengers on board.

But the total of more than 700 cases of infection in Japan can no longer be traced back to this ship alone. After a cab driver in Tokyo was infected on February 13 and an elderly woman died with the virus a short time later, it was clear: the coronavirus had found its way to Japan.

High hospital density

In the meantime, the Japanese government cabinet is trying to cope with the situation. A crisis control center, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was set up several weeks ago. On the Diamond Princess, where evacuations began Thursday, passengers were tested for the virus.

Public broadcaster NHK maintains a hotline in various languages where concerned people can get information or share information themselves. It is gladly emphasized that Japan has a high hospital density and therefore can treat many cases of illness adequately.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Olympic Games have set up their own crisis control center, which focuses specifically on the security of the sporting event and its preparations. Among other things, various test events that are usually held at the venue in the months before the Olympic and Paralympic Games are currently under observation here. A total of 19 such events are planned for next month. The first departure from that plan was announced Thursday by organizers of the Paralympic Games, which are scheduled to begin in late August: A test event for bocce has initially been cancelled for international participants.

It’s not the first sporting event to fall victim to the virus. The Tokyo Marathon on 1. March, which is one of the six most important races of the running season and also one of the most popular in the world based on registrations, may be held this year for elite runners only. "By having confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Japan, we cannot hold the event as originally planned," an official statement said earlier this week.

Elite runners only

The tens of thousands of amateur runners will now get their money back or can postpone their entry until 2021. A similar situation applies to the Nagoya Women’s Marathon on March 8, which has also been restricted to elite runners. The Nagoya City Marathon on the same weekend has been cancelled completely. A training event for the Olympic volunteers who are to support the major event in the summer also fell through.

However, the official side denies that this will cause the Olympic Games to falter. John Coates, executive director at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has said several times that there will be safe Games in July. The Tokyo organizing committee said Thursday in response to a question, "We have never discussed canceling the Games." In doing so, the organizers took no position on the assessments of virologist Hitoshi Oshitani, nor on the question of whether there was already a plan B in the worst case.

In addition to this rather disturbing news for the Japanese population, virologist Oshitani is not the only expert who has expressed doubts about the feasibility of the Olympic Games in the summer. Earlier this week, Shigeru Omi, former WHO regional director and a leading infectious disease expert in Japan, already said at a press conference, "Whether or not the spread of the virus will last until the Olympics depends on the virus as well as society’s efforts."

No one can predict whether the virus can be stopped, he said. "It’s a guessing game for all of us." Like Oshitani, Omi tends to be optimistic, but at the same time cautious that the situation can be controlled soon. For society, such contradictory statements are no reassurance. While there have been several reports of hostility toward Chinese people in Japan, there have also been hoarding purchases. Face masks and disinfectant spray are currently scarce commodities in Japan. The same is true in Europe.