Post-423: A pall over the Olympics of 2021 – and Japan vs. Korea differences

(Originally written in August 2021 with minimal material; recovered from the “Drafts” folder after the site move; and filled in, March 2023.)

I enjoyed watching the Olympics in summer 2021.

However, a “pall”was cast over the whole year of 2021 and all that happened, or tried to happen, or might, or wished to have happened, under that “pall.” That includes the Olympics. The pall was the extension of the disruptions and panic over a flu-virus. The long-disruption continued to disrupt my own life-plans and goal and aspirations in 2021. Seeing the Olympics disrupted was a symbol of that.

I really resented this phenomenon, a triumphant social-movement with political backing, practically amounting to a coup d’etat (or as I heard someone propose it: a “flu d’etat”). I thought a lot about why/how it happened and continue to do so (in 2023). What social, cultural, political, or technological factors caused this thing? Many ideas have been aired on the matter, but I don’t think we have at all come to terms with them. I don’t think our world of circa-2000 or circa-2010 could have pulled this off, but the world of 2020 did.

Japan, the host of the Olympics of 2020 (–>2021), was captive to the powerful international flu-virus panic coalition and acted in obedience to it. It is somewhat true that in Japan a tradition of civilian use of surgical-masks in public existed, at least I say so based on several visits. I recall how, on my very first pass through Japan en route to South Korea for the first time (2009), a medical team in hazmat suits boarded our plane to inspect passengers for “swine flu” before giving the all-clear and letting us off the plane, where I proceeded to wait for a connecting flight, full of that great-gift of nervous-excitement about what South Korea and hagwon teaching might have in store. I remember distinctly laughing at this over-concern. Soon enough these measures were dropped, and absolutely everyone outside a tiny sliver of medical-researchers forgot entirely about H1N1 “swine flu.” On entry into Inchon Airport, there was a single 3×5″-style card that had about three questions on it, to the effect: “Do you have symptoms of flu? YES / NO.” I circled “No,” handed it to a bored-looking woman collecting them. She didn’t bother even glancing at the card. I proceeded towards the arrival terminal. A few kids at the hagwon made some kid-like comments about H1N1, but soon everyone forgot about it.

Some of the commentary in 2020 praised South Korea as having “defeated the virus” in part by loyal mask-wearing, which (the commentators said) was a pre-existing widespread practice in South Korea. Having spent a number of years in South Korea in a variety of situations, I can say that is false. There was no tradition of widespread mask-wearing in the sense the advocates of the panic of 2020 were alleging. Very occasionally you might see a few masked people during so-called yellow-dust season, but these masks could easily be missed entirely if you weren’t looking for them, and were only seen out-of-doors, not indoors. In short, in my experiences through much of the period 2009-to-2019 in South Korea, none of the mental images I have are of people with masks. I bet if I reviewed all the photos I had from that period, none would include someone with a mask in the background (with the sole exception of the brief MERS panic of 2015.)

I remember having my eye out for differences between South Korea and Japan on my visits to the later. The two very much seemed very similar. Although there is a significant language-gap (especially now that Korea has severed its intellectual association with Chinese-characters), much of what one sees and experiences in the two countries are very similar to an outsider. I remarked, at the time, that the two are almost analogizable to different regions of the same country. In this context, what major-and-noticeable differences there were would stand out. I remember distinctly making a list of “differences between Korea and Japan.” Near the top of the list was that you’d see some people parading around in surgical masks. This strange phenomenon was usually women looking to hide from the public, or so I concluded in 2015, perhaps somewhere in the pages of this blog. This was achieved in Korea usually through other means, as with maybe large-sunglasses and a low-rising hat of some kind, maybe a scarf, but not a surgical mask (before 2020).

On the Olympics, when Japan announced it would delay the Olympics, then ban most international visitors, impose certain brutal requirements of quarantining and testing for those few allowed in, even ban domestic spectators, it made my heart sink. That was not because I wanted spectators, but because it signaled there was still a lot of fuel left in the flu-virus panic which was causing so much real damage as I perceived it, including damage to my own life-plans and hopes and goals. Japan’s series of cutback and draconian measures related to the Olympics were signals that this strange social-movement, this global-scale politicized obsession over one flu-virus, would last through not only annus horribilis 2020 but also probably through calendar-year 2021, and (as I guessed some time¬† in maybe spring 2021), if it lasted strong through 2021 it would very assuredly continue through the winter 2021-22 (flu season), but then if we are so lucky it could fade0out in spring, when flu viruses always fade, which is what happened.

I had never really believed the central claims behind the panic (if “claims” is even the proper term; it was all rather highly sensationalized from the start). The claims emerged into a hegemonic social force emerged, beginning some time in March 2020. I recall having evaluated the claims and rejected them, on available data, in mid-March 2020 already. It became a lonely time indeed because so few were on that side (many more were later). I saw the panic as a social phenomenon divorced from the data, and got very little for being right¬† about it. Seeing friends embrace the panic was dispiriting. I felt like one of those characters in a Twilight Zone episode who wakes up to find aliens have taken over normal people’s thoughts.

Here I am in spring 2023 filling in this bare-bones draft, putting meat on what I wanted to say. Having written a thousand words, I overshot my target, but I hope someone at some time (perhaps myself much later) gets some use of this. As I try to recall now the Olympics of summer 2021 two years on, I realize that I don’t recall any specific sporting events. I do recall watching some of them. I did watch some of them, and followed with some interest. But I don’t readily recall any of it. Instead I remember the “pall” over the whole thing, a “pall” over the whole of the early 2020s.

One reason I don’t remember many specifics of the “2020” Olympics (held in mid-2021) is that so much of public life was depressed and anti-social even into that time. An event like an Olympics or a World Cup of soccer is necessarily public-spirited. I can recall specific scenes of previous Olympics, but when I draw into my memory-bank I often come up with scenes involving other people in some way (which, alas, is the sociological purpose of sports spectacles for the large majority of those in any way peripherally involved). I conclude that we, humans, are not meant to experience life “through screens,” if that’s all there is to it.