The Tokyo Olympics are “safe and secure”, insist Japanese politicians
AS THE Olympic torch passed through Hiroshima this week, organisers ensured the relay stayed away from public streets. A torch-lighting ceremony took place without spectators. Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), cancelled his planned visit. Hiroshima, along with Tokyo, the Olympic host city, and seven other Japanese prefectures, is under a government-mandated state of emergency amidst a fourth wave of covid-19.The event epitomised the contortions required to host a global sporting extravaganza during a pandemic. Japan has so far avoided explosive outbreaks of the virus, with fewer than 12,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, thanks in part to stringent border controls in place since last spring. But more than two-thirds of those fatalities have come this year alone. The latest wave, fuelled by more infectious variants of the virus, has strained regional health systems, while vaccinations have been slow to flow. In two months the Olympics are scheduled to kick off, with 15,000 athletes and perhaps 90,000 coaches, staff, hacks and other hangers-on from some 200 countries set to enter Japan. Many Japanese worry that they will be the losers: more than 80% would rather not hold the games this year or at all.Organisers insist the Tokyo Olympics can be held safely. They point to virus-free sporting events in recent months, such as the Masters, an American golf tournament. They aim to create bubbles around the Olympic village and competition sites to isolate participants from locals. A series of Olympic “playbooks” outlines the rules: athletes and officials will not be subject to quarantine, but will be given daily saliva antigen tests; they will be largely barred from using public transport, have to submit detailed travel plans, and have to use smartphone tracking apps. Though vaccination will not be mandatory for participation, Mr Bach claims that 80% of those in the Olympic village will be vaccinated by the start of the games. Overseas spectators will not be allowed to attend. (A decision on local spectators is expected in June.)Many doctors and public-health experts remain unconvinced. Resources that could be used for testing, treating or vaccinating the local populations may be diverted to the games. Increased movement of people within Japan, such as during public holidays in early May, has tended to beget upticks in cases. With events scheduled in nine prefectures including Tokyo, training camps located throughout the country and volunteers coming from all over, more movement is inevitable—and with it, more cases, argues Taniguchi Kiyosu, the head of a big hospital in Mie prefecture and a co-author of an editorial in the British Medical Journal calling for the games to be cancelled. Dozens of towns have scrapped their plans to be bases for foreign teams to train. Hosting would mean providing PCR tests and medical staff for athletes, explains Suzuki Takayuki of Kurihara City in Miyagi prefecture, which backed out of holding a South African field hockey training camp: “We have to prioritise the residents, especially here where ageing is acute.”New viral variants complicate things even more. Some 90% of cases in Japan now come from B.1.1.7, the strain of the virus first observed in Britain. Experts worry about the variant ravaging India, which has been detected in four locally transmitted cases in Japan. The government recently banned entry to everyone except citizens from most of South Asia. The convergence of people from different countries could provide ample opportunity for more variants to enter Japan and more mutations to form. “Japan will become a mixing vessel,” says Mr Taniguchi. Participants could bring the virus back to their home countries, many of which have less robust health systems, says Oshitani Hitoshi, a virologist who sits on an expert panel advising the government: “Just one imported case can trigger a large outbreak.”Japanese people might feel safer if they had as much protection from the virus as Olympic athletes. But according to The Economist’s covid-19 tracker, just 4.5% of Japan’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, a shade behind Myanmar, which is in the throes of a coup d’etat. Less than 2% of Japanese people have been fully vaccinated, the lowest rate amongst the 37 members of the OECD, a club mostly of rich countries. Health-care workers were the first group to begin receiving shots back in February, but only 35% have been fully vaccinated. Suga Yoshihide, Japan’s prime minister, has promised that Japan will at least finish vaccinating its 36m elderly people by the end of July. But a recent government survey found that only two-thirds of Tokyo’s wards reckon they will meet that target.Japan’s problem is not supply. The European Union says it has authorised the export of more than 50m doses to Japan, the most among the 43 nations importing vaccines from the bloc. Nikkei, a Japanese business daily, recently estimated that at least 10m doses remain unused in freezers in Japan. Nor, at this stage, is the problem demand. Although Japanese tend to express a high degree of hesitancy about vaccines in general, that reluctance does not appear to extend to the covid-19 vaccine, says Shimoaraiso Makoto of Japan’s covid-19 task-force. When reservations for a mass-vaccination centre in Osaka operated by the defence ministry opened this week, the 25,000 slots on offer were booked up in around 25 minutes.Instead, logistical snafus and bureaucratic overcaution have slowed the rollout. Booking websites and call centres have been overwhelmed and beset with technical glitches. “I’ve been calling from day to night,” complains one elderly man outside a ward office in central Tokyo. “It didn’t connect at all.” The health ministry stuck to rules requiring small-scale local clinical trials for foreign vaccines. Only the Pfizer-BioNTech shot has been approved for use so far. Japan also lacks staff to administer vaccines, in part because Japanese law only allows registered doctors or nurses to do so. An exception has been made for dentists; officials are now wringing their hands over whether to allow pharmacists to give jabs too. A mistake by an inexperienced practitioner could have disastrous knock-on effects, given Japan’s history of vaccine hesitancy, argues Mr Oshitani: “We are very very sensitive to any adverse event in Japan. One single such event may halt the whole vaccination process.”Nonetheless, the pace of vaccination is accelerating and likely to quicken more in the coming weeks. On May 20th Japanese officials will decide whether to approve the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. The defence ministry plans more mass-vaccination centres. That will please citizens unhappy with the government’s dawdling. More than 80% of Japanese believe the vaccine rollout is moving too slowly; more than 70% disapprove of the government’s overall handling of the pandemic. Approval of Mr Suga’s cabinet has in turn slid to record lows since he took office last September.Cancelling the Olympics might help allay many voters’ suspicions that he is prioritising the games over their health. But it is not as simple as it seems. Olympic host-city contracts give the IOC the exclusive right to call off the games. The IOC, which receives most of its revenues from television broadcast contracts, is eager to move forward. If the Japanese government were to cancel unilaterally, the IOC would have the right to seek damages in court, explains Matsumoto Taisuke, a sports law expert at Waseda University in Tokyo. Japanese officials also dread the impression they would create if Japan bailed from the competition, while China, its regional rival, pulls off the Winter Olympics in Beijing in early 2022. Instead, Mr Suga has taken to repeating a single phrase like a mantra: Japan, he says, will put on a “safe and secure games”. Much, from the fate of his premiership to the course of the pandemic around the world, now rides on that promise.