Even as the coronavirus is sweeping the world with ferocity and people are dying like ants, the Japanese leadership is showing extreme political immaturity and a headstrong approach to go ahead with hosting the Olympics in July. True, Japan has invested enormous amounts of money in preparations, but can it play with peoples’ lives? With a high number of aged people and with more than 65,000 centenarians, even the vaccination has not taken off.
Still, the Suga administration clamours for the fame and glory that it expects the event will bring to the country. In view of the abnormal situation the world is facing, there is still time for a rethink and for good sense to prevail by announcing the cancellation of the Olympics. In hosting the Olympic Games, the Japanese political leadership, first with Shinzo Abe and now with Yoshihide Suga, saw a great public relations opportunity to promote the country and jump-start the economy.
That was certainly the case when Tokyo first hosted the summer Olympics in 1964. At that time, the Games allowed Japan to showcase its successful emergence from the ravages of World War II and led to a slew of infrastructure development projects including building of the Shinkansen bullet train system, besides bolstering consumer demand for televisions and other goods. This time, the situation is dramatically different. Even before the pandemic, critics in Japan argued that the gains of hosting the event would pale in comparison to the cost, which would be too high for too little return.
There has been a heavy escalation in cost after the event was postponed from 2020 because of the global pandemic. It is estimated that the cost has increased by 22 per cent as a direct result of the pandemic to $15.4 billion from $12.6 billion, with an additional $2.8 billion in added costs to renegotiate contracts and make other adjustments. Yet, Japan prefers to be a risk-taker and wants to put the country on the world map as a can-do country that would not accept no for an answer. The option before Japan is to cancel the event altogether.
That would be the easiest and safest thing to do. But the political leadership in Japan view things differently. They feel that if the Grand Slam tennis tournament, the baseball and golf championship, the IPL cricket matches and the planned India-Sri Lanka cricket series, etc, could be organised even without spectators and with even social distancing going for a toss, then why not the Olympics? Yet, the super-spreading potential of such an event will always remain.
There could be another consideration that the political leadership might have in mind. This is to showcase to the world that Japan wants to empower women after Seiko Hashimoto was appointed to head the Olympic Organising Committee in February following Yoshiro Mori’s sexist remarks about women. In a country long perceived to be male-dominated, with most high-ranking positions held by men, the political leadership probably wanted to convey a message to the world by choosing Hashimoto that it was gender neutral and accorded space and respect to women. If Japan still goes ahead with hosting the event, it would be at enormous cost but would prove to be a tremendous win for women in high office and their ability to get things done.
There is another dimension to this twist. If Japan cancels the event, China would be hosting the Winter Games in 2022 and would then take the credit of hosting the world’s first international post-pandemic games. Japan would be hesitant to accord that credit to China, which is seen now as a pariah state with its aggressive stances on a host of bilateral and regional issues. Public opinion is clearly against Japan hosting the Games. According to a poll by Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun, only 36 per cent endorse that the Games should move forward as planned.
Of course, Suga is also under tremendous pressure from many stakeholders to stick to the position of hosting the event. Other public opinion polls show that 60 to 80 per cent are against Japan hosting the event. Since the opening of the Olympics is slated for 23 July and the vaccination process is yet to take off, there is not much time left for the Suga government to be ready to host the event. Even the vaccination issue is problematic. Who should get preference – the aged population, its own nationals or the athletes and the support staff?
Even when a state of emergency is on, it is strange that the Suga administration is hand-inglove with the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee in supporting the Games. Here economics is the only consideration. The IOC gets almost 75 per cent of its income from selling broadcast rights, a key driver in pushing on. And Tokyo’s official spending of $15.4 billion to organize the Olympics could be much higher. At the moment, Tokyo, Osaka and several other prefectures are under a state of emergency. Health-care systems are being stretched. The emergency measures have been extended to 19 June.
So far about 12,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus in Japan and the vaccination is still a long way away. There is risk of the virus and contagious variants spreading quickly. If that happens, can Japan handle the situation if it goes ahead with organising the event? The 6,000-member Tokyo Medical Practitioners’ Association has called for the Olympics to be cancelled in letters sent to Prime Minister Suga, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa, and Seiko Hashimoto, the head of the organizing committee. IOC President Thomas Bach plans to arrive in Tokyo only on July 12.
He was forced to cancel a trip to Japan earlier because of rising Covid-19 cases. The staggering cost to Japan of cancelling the ‘cursed’ Olympics could be heavy. The coronavirus crisis could spell 1.5 per cent contraction in GDP amid loss of 1.8 billion pounds in tourist spending if Tokyo 2020 is called off. But can economics triumph over human lives? Without losing much time, Suga should announce the cancellation of the Games.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)