Japan Covid: 100 days to Tokyo Games 2021, but Japan has inoculated less than 1% of its population

They each receive a bottle of hand sanitizer and two masks.

“They don’t talk about vaccines, they don’t even talk about us being tested,” said German volunteer Barbara Holthus, who is director of the German Institute of Japanese Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Those concerns have been heightened by Japan’s struggle with an impending fourth wave. The country passed a total of 500,000 coronavirus cases on Saturday, and some prefectures are tightening their Covid-19 restrictions again as daily infections increase. Hideaki Oka, a professor at Saitama Medical University, said Japan may not be able to contain the latest wave before the Games begin on July 23.

While Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated his pledge on Monday to secure 100 million vaccine doses by the end of June, Japan has so far vaccinated only about 1.1 million of its 126 million people – less than 1% of the population. Only 0.4% have received two doses.

Holthus said supporting the Games was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “But now it’s just a very dangerous experience,” she said.

In a statement to CNN, the Tokyo 2020 organizers said they were preparing for “safe and secure Games without assuming there will be a vaccine and even without vaccines.”

“On the other hand, we hope that vaccines will be well administered at home and abroad and therefore the infection will be reduced as a whole,” the statement said.

Slow roll-out of vaccines

With an Olympics of $ 25 billion to host, no country in Asia had more incentives than Japan to get its Covid-19 cases under control and vaccinate its population.
Still, Japanese regulators were slow to approve Covid-19 vaccines, compared to other governments, and it took more than two months for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be used. The rollout didn’t begin until February, and seniors didn’t start receiving their doses until April 12, according to Kyodo News.
Experts said some of the delay was due to official caution designed to avoid the vaccine skepticism that has hurt previous vaccination efforts in Japan. Regardless, that approach has left Japan behind other Asian countries, such as China, which delivered 171 million vaccinations, and India, which delivered 108 million doses.

“They say older citizens should have a vaccination by June, but in reality even medical personnel treating Covid have not yet been vaccinated,” said Oka of Saitama Medical University, adding that he did not believe June’s vaccination target. would be met.

Oka said the government should prioritize the vaccination of all athletes entering the country for the Games, but the Japanese government has opposed this approach after media reports that Olympians would be prioritized led to a backlash. social media in Japan.
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Beijing had offered to provide vaccines to all athletes at the 2020 Olympics, but Tokyo turned down the offer, saying no China-made options had yet been allowed for use in Japan.

International spectators have been banned from the Games to try to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading during the event. But more than 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries are expected to participate.

Without plans to vaccinate athletes, the tens of thousands of volunteers taking part have little chance of protection.

Holthus said Tokyo 2020 president Hashimoto Seiko told volunteers during a Zoom call that she “trusted your smile” to make the Olympics a success – a particularly shocking claim given that they would all wear masks.

“(We were told) ‘Your smile will make the Olympics last’ and you wonder, are you kidding me?” said Holthus, volunteering to be a ticket collector.

A volunteer, that attended an 80-minute lecture on infectious disease control for Games volunteers, a top Japanese infectious disease expert said they should not count on vaccination prior to the event.

“(He said) unless you are elderly there will not be enough time for ordinary people to get vaccinated,” said the volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid being banned from her role in the Olympics. . She said she felt angry and scared after the presentation.

The volunteer, who had participated in previous Olympics, said she would consider quitting unless all volunteers had been vaccinated. “Failure to do so is a show of reckless disregard for our lives and for the optimal safe environment Japan must provide as a host,” she said.

Tokyo 2020 did not respond to questions about the content of the presentation given to volunteers.

Questions about athletes

Even countries with almost no infections have struggled to host major sporting events during the pandemic.

In January, some players arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis tournament complained on social media about the strict health control measures they encountered. At one point, spectators were banned for several days amid a minor outbreak of Covid-19 in the city.

For Japan, where 2,112 new cases were reported on Tuesday, it will be more challenging.

International spectators will be refused entry to Japan for Tokyo 2020
International participants need a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours before traveling to Japan, where they will be retested, according to the Tokyo 2020 Playbook released by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on February 21.

But according to the IOC document, athletes don’t need to go into quarantine until 14 days after arriving in Japan unless they’ve violated the country’s Covid-19 precautions or may have been exposed to the virus.

During the Games, participants will be “tested on Covid-19 at various intervals” and all athletes and visitors will be assigned a “Covid-19 Liaison Officer”.

International guests have been asked to leave their accommodation only to “go to official play locations and a limited number of additional locations,” a list of which will be released in the second playbook, due out this month.

Hugs and high-fives should be avoided and public transport should not be used. A face mask should always be worn.

The Tokyo 2020 organizers have not responded to questions about how social distance measures would be enforced in the Olympic Village.

An Olympic event with super spreaders?

While athletes in the Olympic Village will all have tested negative before arriving in Japan, they will inevitably come into contact with tens of thousands of untested volunteers who commute between the Olympic venues and their homes.

The Tokyo 2020 website said volunteers should take public transportation to Olympic venues when volunteering. On Tuesday, there were 510 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Tokyo.
In a statement to CNN, Tokyo 2020 said it had published a leaflet informing volunteers about Covid-19’s countermeasures, including wearing a mask, washing hands, and keeping a safe distance from others.

In response to a question as to whether events in Tokyo 2020 would be postponed due to Covid, the statement said the situation was “changing every moment.”

Holthus said that in addition to the hand sanitizer and two face masks, Games officials had provided volunteers with a “ health diary ” where they could record their own health status.

“It will be concentrated groups of people from all over the world mixing together. What if there is a cluster developing in one of the Olympic venues? And if it comes from one of us?” she said.

Doctor: I am afraid the Olympics cannot be made safe against Covid

Oka, the professor at Saitama Medical University, shared the volunteers’ concerns, saying the Games would allow the spread of dangerous Covid-19 variants not only throughout Japan, but around the world.

Oka said he was also concerned that Japan’s already stretched hospital system wouldn’t be able to cope with a sudden influx of athletes and volunteers infected with the virus. “As an infectious disease specialist, I cannot approve of holding the Games in a situation where not enough vaccinations have been given and adequate countermeasures have been taken,” he said.

In a statement to CNN, the Tokyo 2020 organizing body said it had “high hopes” that the situation of Covid-19 in Japan would improve ahead of the Olympics. “We will continue to work closely with these parties as we prepare to deliver safe Games this summer,” the statement said.

Olympic volunteer Philbert Ono said he trusted the government and the IOC to protect the athletes and volunteers.

“The Japanese love to witness history. And you know these Olympics are very, very historic Olympics … these are going to be very different Olympics. And that’s another thing I’m looking forward to,” he said. . “I just want to see how they do it.”

But Holthus said she did not believe the Games should go through with the current state of preparation, which was a “recipe for a superspreader event”.

“We can’t even imagine how bad it could be,” she said. “But the damage will be done once the Games are held. There is no going back when everyone flies in.”