Tokyo Summer Games worry Japan during COVID-19

When Tokyo hosted the 2020 Summer Olympics at a meeting in Buenos Aires nearly eight years ago, members of the Japanese delegation hugged and shouted for joy. Some were so happy that they started to cry. In Tokyo, where it was 5 a.m., a group of 1,200 dignitaries and athletes in a convention hall burst into cheers.

“The joy was even greater than when I won my own election,” Shinzo Abe, then Prime Minister of Japan, said at the time.

Now, after a year of delay, these long-awaited Summer Olympics are fast approaching, with the Opening Ceremony just over two months away.

But in Japan, the excitement of eight years ago seems to have been replaced by anxiety.

As COVID-19 continues to spread both domestically and around the world, recent surveys in Japan report that between 60% and 80% of residents believe the Tokyo Olympics should not go as planned this summer. A petition calling for the cancellation of the Games generated more than 350,000 signatures. And criticism among members of the Japanese medical community is growing stronger every week.

“Japan is not ready to host such an important event given the current situation of the COVID pandemic,” Kentaro Iwata, professor of infectious diseases at Kobe University in Japan, wrote in an email to USA TODAY. Sports. “The world, too, is not ready either.”

People take part in a demonstration against the organization of the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
AFP via Getty Images

With an increase in the number of cases and vaccination efforts lagging behind, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency in much of the country – including Tokyo – and extended it until the end of the month. of May.

And there are lingering questions in Japan about how the country can effectively tackle COVID-19 while welcoming thousands of athletes, coaches and media from around the world to Tokyo.

The International Olympic Committee and local organizers in Japan continued to express confidence that the Games will take place as planned, starting July 23. They say athletes will be encouraged but not required to be vaccinated before competition, and they have outlined a series of countermeasures that will be implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We are making full progress,” IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said last week. “There has been a little extension of the emergency (in Japan), but we continue to plan for full Games. This is how it should be, and this is the only way it can be for we.”

The COVID-19 situation in Japan

Japan has fared better than most in its fight against COVID-19, with just nine deaths from the disease per 100,000 population – for a total of around 11,500 in total. But in recent months, the number of cases has increased. From March 1 to Saturday, the average number of new daily cases in Japan increased by 528%.

And the slow rollout of vaccines in the country has only made matters worse.

Even as international data on vaccine efficacy became available last winter, Japan has been slow to approve vaccines for home use. It only started vaccinating its residents in mid-February and is still distributing vaccines to its most vulnerable populations, including health workers and the elderly.

Since last week, less than 2% of the Japanese population had been fully vaccinated.

Iwata, the infectious disease expert, said Japan plans to complete vaccination of its high-risk populations by July. But even then, he added, the majority of residents will not be vaccinated – “and (the) spread of the disease will not be significantly prevented.”

Jason Karlin, associate professor at the University of Tokyo, described the COVID-19 situation in Japan as “arguably more serious than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” citing growing complacency among the population.

“While the early days of the pandemic saw greater restraint and discipline, there is now a growing sense of resignation with life under COVID-19,” Karlin wrote in an email.

“Unlike the United States where the widespread availability (sic) of vaccinations has fueled optimism for the future, there are few signs of near-term relief.”

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“Disillusion and cynicism”

Karlin, who specializes in media and gender studies, said local media coverage surrounding the Olympics has become increasingly critical in Japan, with COVID-19 continuing to dominate public discourse and eclipse women. generally light stories.

Take over the Olympic torch relay. The world’s oldest person – Kane Tanaka, 118 – was due to carry the torch when he visited his hometown earlier this month. Instead, she withdrew from the event, citing concerns about COVID-19. And his city subsequently canceled their relay stop altogether, for the same reason.

“The feeling that prevails in Japan today about the upcoming Olympic Games is marked by growing disillusion and cynicism,” Karlin wrote in an email.

In a recent survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun, a national newspaper in Japan, 83% of respondents said they believed the Games should either be canceled (43%) or postponed a second time (40%). Those numbers marked a combined jump of 14 points from April, when 69% were in favor of canceling or postponing the Games.

In a second survey, published on Sunday by the Japanese news agency Kyodo News59.7% of respondents said the Games should be canceled, while an additional 25.2% believed they should be held without spectators.

Adams, the IOC spokesperson, said the organization was aware of the poll numbers in Japan and that “we are taking notice of public opinion.” But he hopes that outlook will change as more information is released.

“I think you will see, when (the Olympics) are going and when there is an incredible moment, it will be reflected (also) in public opinion,” he said.

A couple pose for photos in front of the lit Olympic rings on Tokyo's Odaiba waterfront.

A couple pose for photos in front of the lit Olympic rings on Tokyo’s Odaiba waterfront.
Philip Fong, AFP via Getty Images

‘A great tsunami’

For much of the Japanese population, concerns about the Olympics revolve around resources. Amid COVID-19, some wonder if Japan should divert healthcare resources – from doctors and nurses to hospital beds – to help with the Games?

Iwata said many doctors and nurses who actively care for COVID-19 patients in Japan believe the decision to hold the Games is “a ridiculous idea.” And last week, a Japanese doctors’ union submitted a statement to the government, calling for the Games to be canceled and calling it “impossible” to hold the Olympics safely with the virus – and its variants – continuing to grow. spread.

“It’s a difficult thing for athletes, but someone has to say it,” union representative Naoto Ueyama said at a press conference, according to The Asahi Shimbun.

A second group, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, echoed these comments in a letter published on Monday. According to a translation of the letter by Reuters, the group said hospitals in Tokyo “have their hands full” and “have almost no spare capacity” due to the recent influx of COVID-19 infections.

Seiko Hashimoto, chairman of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, told a press conference late last week that organizers had yet to determine the number of health workers needed for the Games. She said staffing requirements will depend in part on whether or not there are fans present.

Although organizers have said international fans will not be allowed, the decision on whether Japanese fans can attend – and, if so, how many – is not expected until next month.

But even empty stadiums are little consolation for health workers, Ueyama said according to The Asahi Shimbun.

“It’s like a big tsunami is approaching, but they say, ‘It doesn’t matter if we run to the second floor,'” he said.

Contribute: The Associated Press

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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