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Japan, wary of the new coronavirus, approaches the Olympic starting line cautiously

Tokyo, Japan- In front of the red brick wall of Tokyo Station, a digital clock counts down to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. A banner with five Olympic rings hangs on a lamp post above it, while shops in the area are filled with shirts, posters and key chains bearing the same logo.

In the entire Japanese capital, the charm of the Summer Olympics cannot be ignored, but the excitement that usually comes from sports events of this scale seems to be basically non-existent.

There is less than a month before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23. However, the Japanese public is still firmly opposed to the Olympics because of concerns that the influx of athletes, sports officials and journalists may exacerbate the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in Tokyo and other parts of the country.

However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics remain firmly determined to continue hosting the postponed Olympics. This game is now becoming the most expensive Olympic Games ever and will be the first game during the pandemic.

Although anti-virus measures are still being taken in most parts of Japan, the final preparations for the event are still in progress, but the Olympic organizers and the Japanese government have pledged to take strict measures to prevent 93,000 Olympic visitors from exacerbating the epidemic in the country.

They said that the Olympic Games will become a beacon of human resilience and victory over the pandemic.

However, although all measures have been taken to fulfill these promises, there are still more questions than answers.

Visitors from abroad are banned from attending, and on Monday the organizers stated that the capacity will be set to 50% The domestic 3.6 million spectators can hold up to 10,000 people.

At the same time, the organizers also issued a “handbook” listing the protocols to be followed by athletes, officials, journalists and volunteers-including daily testing of 15,000 athletes participating in the Olympics and GPS tracking of foreign media personnel To ensure that they remain in the designated areas of the city-but are skeptical about the extent to which the rules are enforced and the effectiveness of the tracking system.

‘It doesn’t make sense’

Doctors and medical staff have become the strongest voices against the Olympics, and they worry that the surge in infections may overwhelm Japan’s medical system.

“Front-line medical staff are treated as one-offs,” said a 27-year-old nurse who works at Komagome Hospital in Tokyo.

The nurse, who asked to speak on condition of anonymity, said that nursing is already a physically and mentally exhausting job, but the epidemic has made it intolerable for many people. She said that in the past year and a half, many of her colleagues and peers have resigned.

She said: “Holding events like the Olympics at such a time seems to be to commemorate the end of this ongoing pandemic.” “It doesn’t make sense.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Japan has recorded more than 785,000 coronavirus cases and 14,385 deaths-a number far lower than most industrialized countries. Despite this, the country’s healthcare system collapsed in four different pandemic waves.

In March of this year, more than 100 doctors from three hospitals operated by Tokyo Women’s Medical University suddenly resigned. Last year, more than 400 nurses threatened to resign in the same hospital due to the additional pressure on staff from the pandemic and the hospital’s reluctance to hire more staff.

Protesters call for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics on February 12, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan [Nicholas Turner/Al Jazeera]
The Tokyo Olympics are now becoming the most expensive Olympics ever and will be the first Olympics during the pandemic [Nicholas Turner/Al Jazeera]

In May, the hospital in Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, exceeded its capacity, and the bed occupancy rate exceeded 100% for several weeks.

Although civil organizations, doctors’ unions, private companies, and even several major Japanese newspapers have expressed opposition or demanded cancellation of the competition, it was the central government’s most important infectious disease expert who made the headlines.

On June 2, Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee, stated that “usually, the Olympics will not be held under such circumstances”.

Although it is difficult to measure the likelihood of super-spreader incidents due to competitions, health workers worry that sporting events may impose a burden on the capital’s healthcare system.

“The risk may not be as high as people fear, but the increase in the number of severe cases may cause panic in Tokyo and overwhelm the city’s hospitals,” said Satoru Hashimoto, director of the intensive care unit at Tokyo Hospital. Kyoto Prefectural Medical University.

“The outbreak in the capital may spread to the whole country and eventually lead to the fifth wave of pandemic. This is not a scenario I like to imagine.”

Fear of new emergencies

Japan has also been working hard to eradicate the virus, because its infectious disease law-bound by the post-war constitution, which strictly protects personal freedom during national crises-is still largely voluntary.

In other words, it is impossible for the Japanese government to force people to stay indoors in accordance with the law, nor is it possible for the county or mayor to impose the kind of strict blockade imposed by other countries.

Nonetheless, emergency measures appear to have reduced the infection rate nationwide, with cases falling from a peak of 7,000 in mid-May to less than 2,000 in early June.

The country’s third state of emergency ended on June 20 in all counties except one county. The order will continue to be implemented in Okinawa, and nine prefectures, including Tokyo, will continue to take quasi-emergency measures until July 11. But the time to relax the coronavirus measures less than two weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games has caused uneasiness.

Earlier this month, a group of researchers led by infectious disease experts consulting the Ministry of Health showed that if Tokyo saw a surge of infections similar to those in Osaka in April and May, more than 1,000 people were being tested at that time Active every day, the capital may enter a state of emergency again in August.

The report said: “In order to contain a wave of infections and prevent the health care system from collapsing, the state of emergency needs to be extended for two months.”

In order to alleviate concerns about potential pressure on Japan’s medical system, the International Olympic Committee said in March that it plans to send more medical staff to Tokyo in addition to the staff of the nine hospitals that have been designated to treat athletes. 500 nurses will be recruited to work in voluntary shifts in sports venues.

However, local doctors and health organizations pointed out that without a license issued in Japan, any medical staff from abroad cannot legally practice medicine in Japan, and urged the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government to reconsider plans to transfer valuable medical resources. Medical personnel and resources during the pandemic.

Vaccination

Another factor that has sparked public opposition is the slow launch of vaccines in Japan. As of June 16, more than 15% of the 126 million people in Japan had received the first dose of the vaccine. The Yoshihide Suga government plans to vaccinate people aged 65 and over, who account for nearly one-third of the Japanese population, by the end of June, and complete the vaccination of all residents across the country by November.

The IOC also stated that 80% of athletes and possibly 80% of all competition participants will be vaccinated.

Occupational therapist Ayaka Kurasawa in Tokyo said that despite the two doses of COVID-19 vaccines, she still opposes hosting the Olympics because it is not clear how effective these vaccines are in preventing infection and the spread of new virus strains.

“The medical field is still in trouble,” she said. “I think it is necessary to reduce the number of cases until the medical staff get enough rest.”

It is not just health workers who oppose the pandemic. Even those companies hoping that Japan’s idle economy can get a quick start from the Tokyo Olympics are now worried that this may trigger another wave of COVID-19 and trigger a series of new restrictions, thereby deepening their economic difficulties.

“This is not the time to host events like the Olympics or Paralympics,” said 50-year-old Yasuhiro Hasegawa, who has owned and operated a bar in Tokyo with his wife for more than 20 years.

The couple closed the bar completely during Japan’s first state of emergency (which lasted from early April to the end of May last year), and closed early at 8pm every night during the second period earlier this year.

Tokyo bar owner Yasuhiro Hasegawa hopes that the Japanese government will support local businesses to recover from the pandemic [Nicholas Turner/Al Jazeera]

During the country’s third state of emergency announced in late April, bars continued to operate despite the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s requirement to close restaurants or stop selling alcohol in advance.

“All this time and money was spent on the Tokyo Olympics,” Hasegawa said. “When should it be used to support local businesses, help economic recovery, and strengthen virus prevention measures.”

“Democratic Deficit”

Although there are increasing calls for cancellation or postponement, in principle, the International Olympic Committee has the right to cancel the Olympic Games based on the contract with the host country. But there is an ironic precedent that the host country caused the cancellation of the Olympic Games can be traced back to 1938, when Japan abandoned the event originally scheduled for 1940 when the Second World War was imminent.

But stakeholders, many of whom are betting on the marketing potential of the Olympics, cannot withdraw unless they incur huge economic losses.

Japan has spent at least $14.5 billion on the Olympics, and an audit by the Japanese government showed that the cost is actually higher. According to Oxford University, the cost of the Olympics could be as high as $25 billion, making the Tokyo Summer Olympics the most expensive Olympics ever.

Except for the 6.7 billion US dollars of private operating funds, the central government of Japan and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will bear all. If the event is cancelled, the Japanese government will suffer the most in the form of taxpayer money.

“The Olympics brought about a democracy deficit,” said Jules Boykov, a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon.

“I am worried for the Japanese people,” said the scholar, an expert in Olympic and Paralympic history and a former Olympic athlete himself. “They will not be regarded as priorities. On the contrary, the IOC’s own interests, based solely on history, will be regarded as priorities.”

Normally, support for the Tokyo Olympics is largely related to the ebb and flow of the pandemic. When the number of cases increases, the number of people in Japan who want to host the competition decreases, and vice versa.

As early as May, a number of public opinion surveys showed that as many as 80% of respondents believed that the Olympic Games could not be held safely and should be postponed again or cancelled altogether. However, as the number of cases has decreased and the pace of vaccination has accelerated, a poll released in early June showed that about 55% of people called for the postponement or cancellation of the Olympics, while 44% said it should continue.

In another survey, the proportion of respondents was more even, half of the respondents said that the Olympic Games should continue, while 48% of the respondents said it should be cancelled.

Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Tokyo, said the public may be excited about the Olympics, but also disappointed at canceling the increasingly unlikely resignation.

“The good of the opposition,” McElwyn said. “Did it make the government stricter?”

He said that even if those who called for the cancellation of the Olympics did not get the results they wanted, “the end result will be a safer Olympics.”

Additional report by Tamayo Muto



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