Four times the Olympics demonstrated a need for global vaccine equity

2020 saw the postponement of an Olympics games for the first time in Olympic history. Amidst the accelerated spread of COVID-19 in March of 2020, the rescheduled lighting of the Olympic flame in 2021 sought to be a light at the “end of a dark tunnel”.

Yet, as the Olympics got underway, only a little more than 1 percent of populations in low-income countries had received a COVID-19 vaccination and approximately 26 percent globally. The impacts of these global inequities in vaccination rates were evident through the Olympics. Here are four moments that stand out:

1) Nearly-empty Opening and Closing Ceremonies

Hallmarks of the Olympics, the opening and closing ceremonies typically symbolize the world coming together. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the majority of athletes were absent from the Opening Ceremony and less than 1,000 spectators were present in the stadium built to sit 68,000.

2) Changes to the Olympic Village

The housing experience was markedly different for Tokyo 2020 athletes – and not only due to the use of cardboard beds. Featuring plastic dividers at eating spaces, shorter stays, and rigorous testing, the socialization that often marks the athlete experience at the village was hampered amidst the persisting threat of COVID-19.

For women, girls, and gender diverse people, discrimination and inequity is informed by their gender, with real-life implications on their ability to realise rights, to survive and thrive. For Olympian mothers, imposed restrictions amplified persisting disparities:

3) Zero Spectators

While organisers had hoped to include some degree of spectator support, a complete ban on spectators was necessitated due to a fourth state of emergency declared in Tokyo amidst rising COVID-19 cases.

Even so, one Japanese man ensured that athletes felt supported.

4) Withdrawal of Athletes

Following positive tests of COVID-19, a number of athletes withdrew prior to and during the games. The range of athletes affected reflected the global persistence of the pandemic:

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have made it clear that the only way to beat the COVID-19 virus is to beat it everywhere. We are in a race against time – and variants – to vaccinate the world. Ensuring that everyone is vaccinated, no matter where they live, is a complex challenge requiring multiple solutions and the need to leverage every tool available to us.

Learn more about what is needed for an equitable global response to COVID-19 here.


August 17, 2021