Top Kiwi epidemiologist says Olympics must be postponed – and why Government should take action

A top epidemiologist says the Olympics should be postponed because of the pandemic and is calling for the New Zealand Government to take action.

About 450 New Zealanders will be heading to Tokyo for the Olympics, which is set to kick off on July 23.

Kiwi athletes have received priority vaccinations and support from the Government to make their travel as safe as possible, including MIQ spots on their return.

Otago University professor Michael Baker believes the issue with the Olympics isn’t about the safety of New Zealand athletes, but about the message it sends to the rest of the world that are still being ravaged by Covid-19.

Baker points to the situation in India, which is experiencing hundreds of thousands of new cases per day, adding that having the Olympics this year is morally wrong.

“You basically have to look at how the pandemic’s behaving globally. It’s very unequal. It’s intensifying in countries like India to a huge extent,” Baker told Newstalk ZB’s The Weekend Collective.

“The Olympics are all about celebrating this level playing field, global unity and overcoming Covid-19 – that’s what was the statement made when the decision was made early this year to go ahead. So much global unity in overcoming Covid-19 are we seeing at the moment?

“It’s not about the safety of New Zealand athletes. I think that’s for sure with vaccinations and other precautions. It’s what this says about low income countries around the globe. Is this fair and reasonable? Because for their athletes to be vaccinated and attend, they have to divert vaccine from the most vulnerable. And these are people who are dying every day. It is a matter of life or death for many countries in the world.”

Yesterday Baker also said the Government and the New Zealand Olympics Committee need to take a stance on this year’s Games.

“We should recognise what is at stake here and I would really like to see New Zealand government take a firm stance on this,” he told Stuff. “The New Zealand Olympic Committee should be saying they are not going to have a bar of it. Someone needs to say the obvious – that it should not happen now.”

Baker said the Olympics should be postponed, like it was last year.

“It’s not about the safety of our athletes. It’s about the Olympic spirit and what it’s saying,” Baker told NewstalkZB.

“Is this going to be a fair and equitable event for all countries in the world and all athletes? And if not – it clearly isn’t – we should postpone it for another year. It was postponed once already. Last year they said it couldn’t be postponed and then they postponed it. I think it needs to be postponed now.

“And remember it’s been postponed or cancelled three times historically and that was in 1916 in the first world war and then in the second world war in 1940 and 44 and that was because the world was at war. And in a sense, we are at war now against the pandemic.

“From what I read from accounts on some countries, even the athletes are concerned that they are being vaccinated ahead of vulnerable groups. We know there’s huge global shortage of vaccine – there’s not enough at the moment. So why divert vaccine in low income countries from people who desperately need it to vaccinate athletes so they can go and compete in an event, which is important but it is discretionary. We don’t have to have the Olympics this year, we can postpone it next year.”

The Covid-19 expert says the Games isn’t even wanted by the majority of people in Japan.

“It’s very different for New Zealand to host events because we don’t need the massive investment of resources to make them safe. But it’s completely different for a global event.

“You have the two things which are so difficult to manage: huge global travel to the Olympics and secondly mass gatherings. You can make those events relatively safe but it’s a huge investment of resources that would be, I think, better used for protecting people around the globe.

“The other thing is, if you look at your reported surveys from Japan, the public in there does not want it at all in terms of the majority of people. And the healthcare workers over there are very concerned because they are already having a very hard time just managing their pandemic there at the moment. They don’t want the added pressure of having to support an Olympic event.”

About 15,000 international Olympic and Paralympic athletes from more than 200 countries will compete at the event.

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