Reader Mail

The Olympics, COVID-19 and trust

With Japan entering the one-year run-up to the 2021 Olympics, a hovering question is whether the country will be ready in a world that will still likely be confronting the COVID-19 virus. Will the international community have confidence that Japan is safe and prepared to respond if infections yet again flare up? How might Japan best prepare?

If the Olympics are fully attended as was anticipated in 2020, over 11,000 athletes and 600,000 visitors will be expected from more than 200 countries. Japan will be faced with having to manage a sharp influx of visitors from all corners of the globe, coming from highly varied public health environments. At the same time, the athletes and visitors will be wondering if the environment that welcomes them will be safe. Supporting global confidence will be essential.

A key factor that will help to ensure a successful Olympics is trust. Trust must be high, and Japan can take steps now to ensure that trust is strong.

Frances Fei, a professor at the Harvard Business School, breaks down trust into three key elements: logic, authenticity, and empathy.

Logic — trust is enhanced if what you say makes sense. Regarding COVID-19, people must feel that the indicators of safety are clear and reliable. For this, critical data come from testing. The data must be complete and transparent with a system of monitoring that is comprehensive. With 40 percent of those infected with COVID-19 being asymptomatic, testing is important to monitor transmission and the patterns of infection. Prime Minister Abe called an end to the emergency declaration on May 25. At that point, 272,688 tests had been conducted in Japan since the COVID-19 tests were launched three months earlier. On that same date, in one day, the U.S. conducted over 382,000 tests. A month earlier, on April 30, South Korea reported its first day of no new cases detected. With 40 percent of Japan’s population, South Korea had at that point conducted 619,881 tests.

Whereas many governments moved to expand testing aggressively to better understand the extent of the disease and its transmission, Japan hung onto its strict limits on testing. If this continues to next year, then the will data appear incomplete and the actual risk will be uncertain.

Were infections overall truly much lower than other countries? In the U.S. and Europe, studies have estimated that the actual population rate of infection is about 0.5 percent. In Japan, Softbank tested all of its 44,000 employees and found a positive rate of 0.43 percent. A similar infection rate. The population of metropolitan Tokyo, which includes surrounding prefectures, is over 37 million. This would translate into approximately 160,000 infections in this region.

In the U.S., President Trump has implied that to dampen bad news about COVID-19, the government should “slow down the testing, please.” This is not a strategy that builds trust.

Empathy — trust is strengthened if I believe you take my concern to heart. Is there a strong sense that the host understands the concerns of the international community, placing health and well-being above all else? Who is listening to them?

The management of the Olympic postponement created confusion regarding whether the health of the athletes and the public were at the top of the ladder of priorities. Through mid-March, the government of Japan expressed no reservations about holding the Olympics on schedule in July 2020. On March 16, had a call with G7 leaders and indicated that he received their support to hold the Olympics as planned with assurances that Japan would be safe. Yet, among the public in Japan, there was widespread doubt about the viability of the Olympics. A Kyodo News poll around that time showed that 69.9 percent of Japanese citizens expected the Olympics to be postponed.

On March 17, the IOC affirmed that there would be no need for a change. On March 19 the Olympic flame arrived in Fukushima. Then on March 20, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey sent a letter to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee advocating for a one-year postponement of the games. On March 21, USA Track and Field joined in calling for the games to be postponed. On March 22, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced that they would not participate, followed quickly by the Olympic governing bodies in Australia, Germany, Britain, Norway and Brazil.

On March 24, Japan announced that the Olympics would be postponed. On March 25, Tokyo Gov. Koike called for a “soft lockdown” due to COVID-19, beginning that weekend in Tokyo. It was not lost on observers that within a week, there was a shift from the central government assuring the world that the event would be safe, to the start of lockdown at a local level. On April 6, the Japanese government announced a national emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and five populous prefectures.

On this occasion, the main reason offered by national bodies for withdrawing from the Olympics was the lack of ability to properly prepare in the athletes’ home countries due to COVID-19. However, concern about the safety of the event was also tangible. Looking ahead to 2021, all involved will want real-time, reliable information of the health situation on the ground. All will want assurances that should an outbreak occur, they will be informed quickly with clear guidance on actions to be taken and support that will be available. And all will want to know that the Olympic organizers care just as much about them as they do about the prestige and economic benefits of hosting an Olympic Games.

Authenticity – do I feel that you are telling the complete truth? It is essential that Japan be viewed as speaking to the concerns of the international community fully and without conflict of interest. Communication should be clear and with an unconflicted voice.

To lead the management of the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, on March 26 Abe appointed the minister of economic policy. Although this was a public health crisis, the performance of the economy was also at stake. The signal seemed clear about where the government laid its priority.

Headed into the 2021 Olympics, the choice of the country’s lead communicator is essential. This would be someone with a career of public service, who has a reputation for being committed to the societal good and also can speak frankly to international and domestic audiences. Since health will be the key concern, this is someone with public health credentials.

As an admirer of the human talent and accomplishment represented by the Olympics, like many others I look forward with excitement and anticipation to this event. In order to fully respect those who have dedicated so much to achieving excellence, there exists a heavy responsibility to ensure that they train and compete in an environment that is safe and secure. Just as we imagined Japan as a superb Olympic host in 2020 prior to COVID-19, the international community hopes to see Japan setting the standard for a superb and healthy Summer Games in 2021.

Gerald Hane
Former White House co-chair of the U.S. Interagency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Clinton administration

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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