Tokyo Olympics: the capstone on Asia’s resilience in the time of coronavirus?

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Last week brought the positively heart-warming news that the world’s oldest living person—118 year-old Kane Tanaka, who has survived two bouts with cancer, two world wars and two global pandemics—will carry the Olympic torch as Tokyo inaugurates the 2021 Olympic Games. In many ways, the Japanese supercentenarian’s determination to walk the final few steps of her 100-metre leg exemplifies the tenacity which the entire Asia-Pacific region has demonstrated throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the wealthiest countries in the world, such as the UK and US, have racked up tragically high death tolls and are only now managing to gain the upper hand over the virus with aggressive vaccination campaigns. The Asia-Pacific, however, has managed to keep infection rates low throughout the pandemic, tamping down surges in the virus while mostly keeping economies open—a delicate balance which will allow the world to enjoy the excitement and catharsis of the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Regional resilience

While the pandemic has revealed how grossly unprepared most countries and regions around the world were for such a public health emergency, the Pacific Rim countries have emerged as a distinct success story. In the early days of the virus, there was considerable concern that the disease could sweep through Southeast Asia given the region’s dense population and close travel and trade connections to China. Indeed, Thailand marked the first confirmed Covid case outside of China, in early January 2020, and the Philippines suffered the first coronavirus death outside of China.

A collective response and the privileging of health concerns over economic concerns, however, has kept the coronavirus at bay across the region. Decisive action and stringent contact-tracing has been especially effective in Vietnam and Laos, which have been praised for their early curbing of the virus despite limited resources. The region’s successful has not only saved countless lives, but is reaping broader benefits as well—an early GDP forecast for 2021 is optimistic about ASEAN’s forthcoming economic recovery.

Japan has echoed its neighbours’ success—while one might have expected the country’s large population of over 65s to make it uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus, Tokyo has managed to keep fatalities consistently low. Timely containment measures, swift provision of PPE and responsible civilian behaviour, has enabled Japan to keep cases under control—something which has given it the chance to kick off the world’s return to major sporting events by hosting a safe and successful Summer Olympics.

Coming full circle

Japan’s overall containment of the virus will play a key role in helping the Games go off without a hitch, but the country has also foreseen specific health measures for the sporting event. Tokyo published comprehensive ‘playbooks’ last month outlining best practices including regular testing for participants, compulsory masks at all times, and a socially-distanced Olympic village.

Japan is also counting on experienced hands on the tiller to steer the country through hosting the Games under such unprecedented circumstances. Seven-time female Olympian Seiko Hashimoto has taken the reins as Head of the Tokyo Olympic Committee, while Tamayo Maruwaka, a former environment minister who became a household name when she spearheaded Japan’s climate change plan following the Paris Agreement, is the Olympics minister.

The Tokyo Games are also banking on the decades of experience racked up by the Japanese advertising and public relations firm, Dentsu. The company, which pioneered the sponsorship-driven model that shifted the cost from taxpayers to corporate investors and has since become the golden funding standard for the Olympics, was an integral partner for Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics. Those games had tremendous cultural and economic impact on the region, with Japan the first Asian country to host the Games. The 1964 Olympics also left a lasting legacy in terms of infrastructure because it saw the introduction of Japan’s revered Shinkansen ‘bullet train’, still one of the fastest forms of public transport in the world.

A flame at the end of the tunnel

This year’s Olympics promise to be no less historic, marking a return to normal after the coronavirus pandemic forced the Games’s postponement last summer. International Olympic Committee Michael Payne even suggested that these Games have the potential to be the best yet, since “The Tokyo Olympic organizing committee was already viewed by many as the most advanced and well prepared of any committee responsible for an Olympic Games. Its marketing programs are the most successful of recent times and it has the full support of Japanese industry and the strong backing of the government and people. The venues are stunning; the infrastructure is in place.”

Perhaps most importantly, this July’s games are set to reflect a broader pattern of Asia-Pacific countries demonstrating determination in the face of hardship, showing the rest of the world that the future is bright despite difficult times in much of the world. The Olympics is more than a sporting event at the highest level—the Games offer a message of unity and international excellence that is particularly necessary given the challenges of the past year.

Though there may be fewer fans in the stands than usual, the Games will be watched by the millions—old and young—who are eager for a taste of victory after the battering of the Covid-19 pandemic. As vaccines are green-lit for emergency use and countries such as Singapore and Indonesia roll out immunization programs at a rapid clip alongside Japan, the Olympics— the age-old celebration of youth and health— will be the opening ceremony of a new post-pandemic era.