(Bloomberg Opinion) — Should young, healthy Olympic athletes receive priority for Covid-19 vaccines?
The Indian government thinks so. With its blessing, athletes are set to leap over hundreds of millions of more vulnerable people to receive doses before this summer’s Olympic Games. In Lithuania, Hungry and Serbia, athletes have already gotten their shots. In Denmark, they soon will. Other countries will almost certainly follow.
It’s a difficult choice to defend when the world is struggling to deliver enough doses for those in greater need. But it isn’t entirely crazy. Barring cancellation, Tokyo 2021 will likely be the world’s largest gathering since the start of the pandemic. Ensuring that it doesn’t become a super-spreader event is in everyone’s interests. Nearly as important, key sectors of the economy, especially travel and tourism, would benefit from a large-scale proof-of-concept that vaccines can bring back a semblance of “normal” to big events.
Last year, neither Japan nor the International Olympic Committee wanted to postpone the games. But the spread of the virus, combined with travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders, forced their hands. As the pandemic worsened, even pushing the events back by a year seemed optimistic. At the time, few were betting that vaccines could be developed, tested and distributed in such a short span.
Thankfully, progress has been quicker than expected. Yet the organizers still face a quandary: how to justify expending limited vaccine supplies to hold a global spectacle? So far, they’ve sent out nothing but mixed messages. In November, IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters that athletes shouldn’t get priority over first responders. In February, the organization directed national Olympic committees to obtain shots for their athletes, but made clear that they wouldn’t be mandatory. Finally, Dick Pound, the group’s vice president, told the Wall Street Journal: “Unless you’re out of your f—ing mind, you should get vaccinated before you come.”
He was being crude, but he had a point. So long as organizers are determined to hold the games during the pandemic — and they seem to be — it would be irresponsible to allow large (often indoor) gatherings of unvaccinated competitors. Even under the Covid-optimized conditions promised by the IOC, with ubiquitous testing and other precautions, staging the Olympics isn’t the same as (say) playing in an NBA-style bubble. More than 11,000 athletes are expected to travel from around the world to take part, competing in 339 events across dozens of different venues. No matter how cautious they are, it’s easy to foresee a problem.
There’s also a positive case for a vaccinated Olympics. In good times, travel and tourism accounts for as much as 10% of global gross domestic product and 330 million jobs. Thanks to the virus, the industry has lost millions of jobs and as much as $1.2 trillion in income over the past year. Vaccines have long been viewed as a key means of helping the sector recover. If athletes, coaches and organizers could demonstrate that a vaccinated event is a safe event, it could go a long way toward getting back to normal.
Of course, all this hinges on what happens with spectators. Millions of tickets have already been sold for the games, but so far the IOC and the Japanese government have been silent about their plan to manage crowds. If they can offer a credible proposal for testing and quarantining travelers, restricting crowd sizes, mandating protective equipment, tracking infections, and so on, then the case for vaccinating and isolating athletes looks a lot stronger.
Even then, there will be plenty of (understandable) criticism when Olympians get shots ahead of the sick or elderly. One thing the IOC could do to mitigate these concerns is commit to using its considerable resources to expand public access to vaccines. Last year, the NBA funded community-based Covid testing sites in parallel with its expansive testing program for players, thereby growing, not shrinking, access to crucial diagnostics. The IOC could do something similar by (among other things) making a big donation to COVAX, the global initiative established to ensure distribution of vaccines to lower-income countries.
For decades, the IOC has taken more from the cities and countries that host it than it’s given back. Perhaps the pandemic could be an opportunity to change that narrative and improve public health for people who may never pay attention to the Olympic Games. All it takes is a willingness to share the benefits that will accrue when athletes jump the queue.