THE International Olympic Committee (IOC) is correct in assessing that it has a “very big communications job” to calm fears over the coronavirus epidemic ahead of this summer’s Games in Tokyo.
After all, the opening of the world’s largest and most prestigious athletics event is just five months away and, up to Thursday this week, a dramatic rise in the number of deaths and new cases of the virus had fuelled global suspicions that China was concealing the true scale of the illness.
What has been reported so far is that, up to yesterday, the death toll stood at nearly 1,400 people and approximately 64,000 were infected — most of them in China.
To be fair to the Chinese, we have not seen any evidence that they are not being transparent in their response to the outbreak. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday stated that Beijing had collaborated with the international community regarding the virus.
Despite that statement of support from the WHO, it is only natural that people will remain hesitant about travelling to Japan for the Olympic Games. What will also influence people’s decision is if no cure is found for the COVID-19 in, say, another month or two.
However, as it now stands, the IOC is insisting that there is no danger of the Games being cancelled or moved.
According to Mr John Coates, head of the IOC Co-ordination Commission, the IOC intends to circulate information packs to reassure athletes that it is safe to come into contact with competitors from China.
He also said the advice the IOC has received from the WHO is that there is no case for a contingency plan to cancel or move the Games.
Any such decision, said Mr Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies programme, is the responsibility of the host country and organising entity.
With Japan being one of the worst-hit countries by the virus outside of mainland China — registering one death on Thursday, 413 cases including 355 positive tests of people quarantined on a cruise ship floating off Yokohama since last week — the games organisers there will no doubt face some amount of inquest about safety.
Mr Coates, we are told, has said that one of the lessons learnt from the Rio Olympics four years ago was that the IOC needed to improve communication after the WHO emphasised that the likelihood of the Zika virus being a problem at the time of the Games was very low.
Readers will recall that concerns over Zika resulted in several top athletes pulling out of those Games.
As the Tokyo Games draw nearer, each nation, we suspect, will make a final decision about their participation. It is our hope that by then the threat posed by the COVID-19 would have passed.
Plus, it would be a huge disappointment to the Japanese government and people to have expended large amounts of resources — human and financial — to host the Games, only to have them cancelled.