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Abrahamson: Keeping COVID in perspective at the Olympics

Olympic Stadium is one of many important venues for the Tokyo Games.
Olympic Stadium is one of many important venues for the Tokyo Games. (Yukihito Taguchi)

TOKYO — Can we please dial down the Olympics hysteria?

The narrative being spun from far too many quarters here, with just days to go until the Opening Ceremony Friday, involves flights of fancy such as “nightmare,” “catastrophe,” “doomsday scenario” and more.

Reality: It’s hot and humid but things are calm, they’re playing soccer and softball even before the ceremony, and the pre-Olympic hysteria serves as a — if not the — definitive example of the FUD narrative — fear, uncertainty and doubt — when what this situation calls for, especially given the import and sensitivities of COVID, is what journalists are supposed to do. 

You know, report the facts amid relevant and material context.

Like this:

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee issues a report at 11 local time every morning. You can find it here.

Tuesday’s report reads like this:

Accounting for all tests from June 29 through July 19, the total number of positive tests linked with Games-accredited personnel: 71.

But, as organizing committee spokesman Masa Takaya said at Monday’s briefing, it’s key to look inside the numbers. 

Of those 71:

40 are Japanese residents.

This means — math does not lie — that 31 are from overseas.

Now take those 31. Make that your numerator in a simple equation in which the denominator is the number of people who have come to Japan since the beginning of the month for the Games, which the committee says is roughly 30,000. 

That’s your positivity rate: approximately 0.1%.

Let’s compare.

In New York, the positivity rate is 1.19%. The authorities there say the trend is “increasing.”

In Los Angeles, where county health authorities just reinstated mandatory indoor mask wearing, the positivity rate over a seven-day average is 3.23%.

To be blunt: 0.1% is nothing short of outstanding.

Is it zero? Or course not.

Our world in July 2021 does not allow for there to be zero COVID. It simply does not.

Life — and the Olympics — is also not about zero risk. Indeed, at a news conference last weekend, the IOC sports director, Christophe Dubi, emphasized that very point. There is “no such thing as zero risk,” he said, adding that the Olympic Village would be a “COVID-safe environment but not COVID-free.”

At another briefing, this one Monday, Dr. Brian McCloskey, the former director of global health for Public Health England who is chair of an expert panel advising the IOC, said of the testing numbers, “What we are seeing is what we expected to see, essentially.

“If all the tests that we do were going to be negative, we wouldn’t bother doing the tests in the first place,” and this is just common sense.

He went on: “We do the tests because they are our way of filtering out people who might be developing infection, who might become a risk later.

“So we identify them, we take them apart from other people and we manage them and look after them. And we look after the contacts.”

Now:

Simply writing this column — I’m well aware — opens me up to the charge of being some sort of sell-out.

It is understandable and predictable that in the midst of a pandemic — far from over — that a global gathering of thousands of people would occasion reasonable concerns.

For the people of Tokyo and Japan, in particular — here come thousands of people from all over. Apprehension? Understandable, entirely. We can all meet their concern with empathy, grace and goodwill.

But we are all better off with calm and rational analysis linked to facts.

Because facts matter. They lead us to the truth. And away from hysteria.