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Louise K. Comfort:Hosting the Winter Olympics will test China's judgment on global health issues

Louise K. Comfort, Professor at the University of Pittsburgh

Professor Louise K. Comfort talks to us about preparedness during the Winter Olympics. Louise K. Comfort is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Her research interests are disaster response management, organizational theory, complex adaptive systems, and decision making under uncertainty. Her recent research includes Dynamics of Risk: Changing Technology and Collective Action in Seismic Events and Resilience by Design: Preparing for Extreme Events.

The 24th Winter Olympic Games will be held in Beijing. During major sports events, a large number of foreign athletes and their accompanying teams will arrive in Beijing, which will increase population mobility to some extent. So what human factors do you think will directly or indirectly affect public health, and what should we do? Solve the problem?

In response to these questions, the Center interviewed Professor Louise K. Comfort for her views on epidemic preparedness during the Winter Olympics.

Hosting the Winter Olympics will test China's judgment on global health issues

The 24th Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing. During the major event, a large number of foreign athletes and their accompanying teams will arrive in Beijing, which will increase population mobility to a certain extent so what human factors do you think will directly or indirectly affect the public health and what should we do to solve the problems?

The Winter Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing, China, February 4 – 22, 2022, will provide an international setting for athletes and their fans from around the world. Usually a time of international friendship, exchange, competition, and comradeship, the Games this year present the unseen danger of a still circulating coronavirus, SARSCoV2 and its variants. With athletes, their coaches, families, and fans coming from more than 100 countries, the risk of exposure to a potentially deadly virus that causes the disease, COVID-19, is very high and very difficult to control. From the experience reported by Japan with the Summer Olympics in July-August 2021, the number of cases of COVID-19 in Japan surged to over 5,000 cases during the Games. This number included athletes, coaches, and personnel engaged in managing the events, despite detailed, careful precautions taken by the Japan Olympics Committee in requiring masks, testing, and scheduling events without fans.

The large influx of people expected to arrive in Beijing for the Games creates risk for three major groups who may be unwittingly exposed to the SARSCoV2 virus, resulting in different levels of cost and disruption. These risks will be discussed briefly first by the groups most likely affected and second by the type of risk incurred.

Athletes and their Coaches. This group is likely to be the most closely monitored and protected during the Games. The Beijing Olympics Committee can set requirements for vaccination and testing and establish mandatory requirements for participation or exclusion from the games. Yet, despite very careful rules and monitoring, at least 387 cases of COVID-19 were identified among athletes and personnel associated with the Summer Olympics in Japan (Mandalit del Barco, NPR, July 29, 2021).Japan’s experience demonstrates that total control of the disease is likely not possible.

Population of Metropolitan Beijing. The current population of Beijing, almost 21 million residents, would be exposed to travelers from more than 100 countries who would be supporting the athletes and their coaches and families. This population would be providing services to the athletes and their attendant personnel that include hotels, restaurants, local transportation, translation, and guide services. Given the high transmissibility of the Delta virus, the current dominant strain of COVID-19,the risk of exposure is high to the wider population of Beijing with consequent illness, disruption, overload of hospital services, and death, as well as cascading costs in disruption of social and economic services.

Population of China, outside of Beijing. The virus does not stop at municipal boundaries, and given the Delta variant’s high transmissibility, the contagion is likely to spread beyond Beijing to areas of China where the local population may not be fully vaccinated. The experience of the rapid spread of the Delta variant to unvaccinated populations has been documented in India, Indonesia, and the southern states of the United States. The surge in infections led to further lockdowns, high rates of disease, hospitalizations, and deaths ( in each country, with consequent effects on social and economic disruption. The experience of other countries with the virus could inform China’s policy on managing the virus.

Rest of the World’s Population. As the athletes return home, there is a risk that they will bring the virus or a new variant back with them, increasing the circulation of the virus and likely creating new contagions from the mix of different variants encountered in Beijing. This outcome would increase the contagion in other countries of the world.

Even with vaccines available, not all countries have access to them and not all residents in these countries are willing to accept the vaccines. The cost is likely to be enormous. Japan bore a burden of at least $15 billion in increased medical costs, work and travel disruptions, and prolonged interruption of normal economic and social activity. In a country of China’s size and scale, the costs would likely be two or three times that much.

Proceeding with the Games will impose extraordinarily high costs on China. The question is whether the likely cost in illness, death, social and economic disruption not only for China, but globally is worth proceeding with an event long scheduled before the pandemic. The decision will be a test of China’s judgment on global health issues.

Citation: Del Barco, Mandalit. Coronavirus Cases at the Tokyo Olympics Continue to Increase. NPR July 29, 2021.

Interviewer: Li Yuxuan

Interview date: November 5, 2021



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