Time International - 02.03.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1
Time March 2–9, 2020


n a promoTional video feaTuring
Japanese tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, as
well as fans of different nationalities, the
organizing committee for the Tokyo 2020
Olympic and Paralympic Games revealed on Feb. 17
the event’s official motto: “United by emotion.”
Yet if there’s one emotion linking the world
today, it might be fear. The COVID-19 outbreak
shows little sign of weakening. As of Feb. 19, the
disease has infected more than 75,000, killed 2,
and prompted more than 50 nations and territories
to close their borders to arrivals from China. The
“devil” virus, as Chinese President Xi Jinping has
called it, is on the cusp of becoming a pandemic. The
coming weeks will determine whether containment
efforts can prevent COVID-19 from morphing into
the “black-swan event” that Alibaba CEO Daniel
Zhang has warned may derail the global economy.
The economic repercussions already look
severe. According to research firm Capital Econom-
ics, COVID-19 will cost the world economy more
than $280 billion in the first quarter of this year.
China’s growth is expected to slow to 4.5% over the
same period. Some 5 million companies have Chi-
nese suppliers, according to data company Dun &
Bradstreet; Apple warned on Feb. 17 of global
iPhone supply shortages.
Travel in and around the region has ebbed sig-
nificantly. Some 21 airlines have canceled all flights
to mainland China. Hong Kong–based Cathay
Pacific has cut 40% of network capacity and asked
27,000 employees to take unpaid leave to help it
stay afloat. Events ranging from the pan-Asia sports
tournament Hong Kong Rugby Sevens to K-pop
concerts have been canceled or postponed.

Now, speculatioN is mouNtiNg about one
of the year’s biggest events, set to take place di-
rectly in the orbit of the outbreak: the 2020 Olym-
pics in Tokyo, beginning July 24. Japan has the
second highest number of COVID-19 infections
after China, with 695 people testing positive for
the virus, most of them on a cruise ship docked in
Yokohama. Yet the Olympics torch relay is due to
begin in March and traverse all of Japan’s 47 pre-
fectures over 121 days. And the Games themselves
are expected to draw 600,000 foreign visitors
from nearly every country. According to Japanese
public broadcaster NHK, Tokyo 2020 organizing-
committee chief executive Toshiro Muto voiced
concerns on Feb. 5 that COVID-19 might “throw

cold water on the momentum toward the Games.”
As speculation swirled, Tokyo organizing-
committee president Yoshiro Mori insisted on
Feb. 13, “We are not considering a cancellation or
postponement.” Four days later, the city canceled
its marathon, which was scheduled to take place on
March 1, for all except elite runners. Dick Pound,
an International Olympic Committee (IOC) mem-
ber, told TIME the organization is examining the
situation closely but not jumping to conclusions
this far ahead of the Games. “If there’s a legitimate
pandemic that is potentially a lot more lethal than
normal illnesses of flu, that’s when you need to start
thinking about it,” he says. “But not at this stage.”
The Tokyo committee’s confidence is in line
with projections that COVID-19 will fade during
summer months, as SARS did in 2003. But it’s not
clear why SARS declined as temperatures rose.
Some coronavirus strains—like MERS—thrive in
the heat. The theory is “based on wishful think-
ing,” says University of Minnesota epidemiologist
Michael Osterholm. “There is no data to support it.”
It’s hard to overstate the economic impact on
Japan if the Olympics are canceled or relocated.
The Games themselves are set to cost $25 billion,
with more spent on infrastructure to handle the
influx of international visitors expected this year.
Koichiro Takahara, CEO of Tokyo-based ride-share
app NearMe, says he fears the Olympics could be
canceled if the outbreak worsens. “I am keeping my
fingers crossed” that doesn’t happen, he says.
It would also impose a political cost on Japan’s
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose Cabinet has
seen a slump in popularity, partly because of its
handling of COVID-19. Skepticism will be rife, says
Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University in
Oregon who studies the Games. “For many, when
they hear Abe and other officials saying that the
virus will not affect the Olympics, they hear the un-
mistakable ring of previous empty promises.”
Then there’s the cost to businesses that have
ploughed vast resources into securing rights deals
and sponsorships. NBC alone spent $1.4 billion on
broadcasting rights for Tokyo 2020. Both host and
corporate interests will resist deviation, says Simon
Chadwick, a sports- industry professor at France’s
Emlyon Business School. “The Japanese govern-
ment is surely lobbying the IOC hard as it seeks to
protect its multitude of investments,” he says.
That might explain an apparent unwillingness to
address the uncertainty. Asked what contingency
plans were in place, the Tokyo Metropolitan
Government told TIME, “We cannot provide a
definitive answer to a hypothetical situation.”
Yet as the virus extends its tendrils further into
the Asia region, the risks are only becoming more
tangible. —With reporting by Sean gregory/
new york and mayako ShibaTa/Tokyo □

TheBrief Opener


Number of
visitors Japan
received from
China in 2019


Number of
countries and
territories with
COVID-19 cases
as of Feb. 19,
including the
U.S., Canada
and Russia


Number of
confirmed cases
in Japan as of


The Olympics-size

risk of COVID-

By Charlie Campbell



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