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Jeremy Youde: The Beijing Olympics are an opportunity to demonstrate the importance

Jeremy Youde, Professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth

In this issue, the Centre has an exclusive interview with Dr Jeremy Youde on the Olympics and COVID-19. Dr. Jeremy Youde currently works at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Chair of the College of Arts, Humanities, And Social Sciences) in the Department of History, Political Science & International Studies, Compared to political science and international relations. His research interests focus on Global public Health, Health Governance, International relations and research in the World Health Organization. He is the author of Global Health Governance in International Society.

After the Tokyo Olympics, the Beijing Winter Olympics are the focus of attention. The coronavirus pandemic has had a negative impact on many major international events, including quadrennial sporting events like the Olympics.

In response to this question, the Center interviewed Professor Jeremy Youde for his views on the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and COVID-19 prevention and control from the perspective of global public health.

The Beijing Olympics are an opportunity to demonstrate the importance and value of cooperation and to recognize our common vulnerabilities

The XXIV Olympic Winter Games will soon be held in Beijing. What are the factors that affect public health security in such a large global public event? What should be done in response?

Major international sporting events like the Winter Olympics are an incredible way to bring people from all over the world together to cheer for their favorite athletes, make connections with people from other countries, and explore a part of the world to which they may not have previously traveled. It’s these exact features, though, that raise concerns in the midst of a global pandemic. While COVID-19 is obviously top of mind for today’s Olympic organizers, this is not the first time that an infectious disease has threatened the Olympics. During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, there was widespread concern about hosting the Games in a country that was in the midst of an ongoing Zika outbreak. Zika is a mosquito-borne illness that has been linked to causing birth defects among pregnant women, and many worried that Zika would hitch a ride with people as they returned to their home countries and spread even further. Fortunately, no athletes, spectators, or officials tested positive for Zika during the event, but it demonstrated the very real potential link between global sporting events and the spread of infectious diseases.

The World Health Organization offers a good definition of health security, describing it as:

“the activities required, both proactive and reactive, to minimize the danger and impact of acute public health events that endanger people’s health across geographical regions and international boundaries.” This definition speaks directly to the sorts of challenges that the organizers of the Winter Olympics face in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Testing and vaccination requirements are an important element of a strategy that is simultaneously proactive and reactive. Take, for instance, vaccines. We know that vaccines are one of the most important tools for reducing COVID’s spread, and we have seen significant decreases in new COVID cases in parts of the world where vaccination rates are high. The problem is that there exist incredible disparities in who has access to the vaccine. Even if competing athletes receive preferential access to a COVID vaccine in order to permit their participation, the fans who want to cheer them on may not have such access. A high rate of vaccination in any large public event--particularly one that brings together people from countries across the globe--is crucial for reducing the likelihood of COVID spreading further or mutating into a new strain.

Vaccines and vaccination are not enough, though. During the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, organizers kept fans out of the stands--a smart move, but one that significantly changed the experience for the athletes. Piping in cheers to simulate larger crowds may seem awkward, but it is a better outcome than fomenting a larger outbreak.

Another common strategy is creating an “athlete bubble”--essentially trying to isolate the athletes and staff from contact with the outside world to minimize the risk of infections and allowing for games to continue. The National Basketball Association used this strategy for its 2020 season, and it worked well; no players in the bubble tested positive for COVID during the season. The Tokyo Summer Olympics tried something similar, but it was less successful and organizers recorded nearly 800 COVID cases among athletes, volunteers, and staff (though very few hospitalizations and no deaths). There are major and significant differences between trying to maintain a bubble among athletes within a single sports league and one that brings tens of thousands of people together in a new country.

Given these experiences and the pledge from the International Olympic Committee that the Winter Games will go ahead, there are steps that organizers can take to reduce (but not entirely eliminate) the risk to athletes and attendees. First, there must be a vaccination requirement and a robust testing regimen to identify any breakthrough cases. Second, despite its shortcomings in Tokyo, creating and maintaining a bubble will be of key importance. Chinese officials have already described their “closed-loop bubble” that will essentially keep athletes, staff, and journalists in a self-contained environment. They are also restricting spectators to people who already live in mainland China. Third, disease surveillance will need to continue after athletes return home in order to quickly find any cases. Surveillance and contact tracing are classic tools of public health, and they are particularly important with an event of this scale and magnitude. Finally, organizers should use the Winter Olympics as a tool for promoting collective action in order to stop this pandemic. International solidarity to halt COVID-19’s spread has been far too sporadic, and that places all of us around the world at risk. The Winter Olympics can be an opportunity for showing the importance and value of working together to recognize our shared vulnerability. Viruses may not care about international borders, but those same viruses can take advantage of the different policies in different countries. Our only hope to stop COVID-19 is through coordinated global action, and what better forum for showing how the world can come together than the Olympics?

Interviewer: Zhao LAN

Interview date: November 5, 2021



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