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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Explained: Why Japan’s fourth Covid wave has put a new shadow on Tokyo Olympics

With Japan witnessing Covid-19 cases at a rate that it has never before, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has already announced emergencies in nine prefectures of the country, including Tokyo — the venue of July’s month’s Olympic Games.

Written by Rounak Bagchi , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: May 29, 2021 3:14:53 pm
Spectators wearing face masks and ninja outfits, cheer a torchbearer carrying the Olympic torch in Iga, Mie prefecture, central Japan, Thursday, April 8, 2021. (AP)

When Japan was recording a seven-day average of less than 1,000 Covid-19 cases this March, experts believed the country had overcome the pandemic for the third time in the last one year. The country has been gearing up to host the Olympics in July as fresh infections have been steadily declining.

However, things started to change from mid-April when Japan was hit by the fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 8, Japan’s Covid-19 cases topped 7,000 for the first time since mid-January and currently, the country’s seven-day average stands at 4,449, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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Japan’s Covid situation

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With Japan witnessing Covid-19 cases at a rate that it has never before, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has already announced emergencies in nine prefectures of the country, including Tokyo — the venue of July’s month’s Olympic Games.

The order is to remain in place in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Aichi, Fukuoka, Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima prefectures.

This came after 13 of the country’s 47 prefectures saw record daily coronavirus cases.

Japan, which is still recording more than 4,000 cases a day during a prolonged fourth wave, has its medical systems strained in many cities. Hospitals in Osaka, Japan’s third-biggest city, are overflowing with coronavirus patients. About 35,000 people nationwide — twice the number of those in hospitals — are currently at home with the disease, often becoming seriously ill and sometimes dying before they can get medical care. Exhausted doctors in Osaka told Reuters they saw an “explosive growth in the number of patients”. “Simply put, this is a collapse of the medical system,” Yuji Tohda, director of Kindai University Hospital in Osaka, told the news agency.

Under the emergency measures, restaurants, department stores and other major commercial businesses have been ordered to curtail their operating hours, and dining establishments are forbidden from serving alcohol.

The country has recorded more than 700,000 infections and 12,000 Covid-19 deaths from the virus.

Why has the fourth wave hit Japan so badly?

Japan’s vaccine rollout has been among the slowest in the industrialised world, with only 2.4 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. It started inoculating people only in February, much later than other developed nations.

Also, it is only this week that the government started mass vaccination campaigns in Tokyo and Osaka. But the government’s current goals call for only those over 65 to be fully vaccinated by the end of July, when the Summer Games are slated to begin.

Currently, officials are planning to vaccinate up to 5,000 people in Tokyo and 2,500 in Osaka every day with the Moderna jab, while in June and July this capacity is set to double.

So far, only around 4.7% of the country’s elderly — those above 65 years of age — have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer, Moderna or Oxford AstraZeneca shots.

However, the progress is considerably slow owing to supply shortages and logistical hurdles, such as getting enough local doctors to help out. There has also been considerable confusion over how to secure slots. Many across the country have complained about errors while booking their slots for the new mass vaccination centres run by the government and this difficulty is often related to where one is making a reservation from.

What about the Olympics?

After having been postponed by a year, the Tokyo Olympics is scheduled to go ahead despite severe criticism from around the world. Resistance towards holding the Games under the shadow of the pandemic has also grown in Japan, with one of the country’s most prominent business tycoons calling out the government over its decision to continue with the Games.

In a tweet that went viral, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said, “More than 80% of people want the Olympics to be postponed or cancelled. Who and on what authority is it being forced through?”

In a survey released this week in Japan, 83 per cent of those polled said they did not want Tokyo to hold the Olympics and the Paralympics. That total was up 14 percentage points from a survey in April. In the survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper over last weekend, 43 per cent wanted the Games to be cancelled, with 40 per cent wanting them to be delayed again. Only 14 per cent wanted the Games to be held this summer, half the number from a previous poll in April.

Olympics torch relay Members of civic groups perform during a rally against the Tokyo Olympics due to safety concerns against radiation risks, near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea in March, 2021. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

The medical organisation, which represents about 6,000 primary care doctors, posted an open letter to PM Yoshihide Suga on its website on Monday saying that it would “strongly request” the authorities to arrange a cancellation.

Athletes have also come out to voice their hesitation over holding the Games with Japan’s biggest sports star, tennis champion Naomi Osaka, becoming the latest one to join the debate. “Of course, I want the Olympics to happen,” she said this week. “But I think there’s so much important stuff going on, especially the past year. For me, I feel like if it’s putting people at risk… then it definitely should be a discussion, which I think it is as of right now. At the end of the day, I’m just an athlete, and there is a whole pandemic going on,” she added.

America’s track and field team earlier this week cancelled its pre-Olympics training camp in Japan out of safety concerns. Even the governor of the province that would have hosted the team, said he believed “they made the best decision possible in the current situation”.

The United States Center for Disease Control has also said that “travellers should avoid all travel” to the country, warning that in the “current situation in Japan, even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk of contracting and spreading” different Covid variants.

Olympics, to date, has been cancelled only thrice in 1916, 1940 and 1944 — all three cases due to the two World Wars. So, despite mounting criticism and protests, John Coates, vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, has promised that the Games would “absolutely” go ahead, even under Covid restrictions.

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