Shadow hangs over Olympics once again as virus rises in Japan

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The fate of the postponed Tokyo Olympics is again mired in doubt after Japan declared a second state of emergency for metropolitan areas as cases of COVID-19 reach new levels.

Japan is one of many countries where the virus has made a comeback in winter, with Tokyo finding a record 2,447 cases on January 7. The discovery of new strains, possibly more infectious in the UK and South Africa, has also alarmed governments around the world. . With less than 200 days of the opening ceremony, the situation rekindled questions about the feasibility of safely holding even a limited version of the quadrennial games.

While the number of infections in Japan has been far lower than in other wealthy industrialized countries, the pandemic has been a lingering cloud over the Olympics since they were delayed nearly a year ago. The resumption of sporting events around the world and the development of vaccines have brought some optimism, but organizers have said the 2020 Olympics will be canceled – not delayed – if they cannot go as planned. That said, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated his determination to host the games even as he announced the new restrictions.

“In a state of emergency, the idea is that it will probably take a long time to contain the pandemic,” said Kenji Shibuya, professor and director of the Institute of Population Health at King’s College London, and openly criticizing Japan’s response to coronaviruses. . When asked if March was the right time to decide on where the Games will be held, and details of how to proceed, he said: “It is unrealistic that they can come up with measures by March. “

Scheduled to last for a month, the current emergency restrictions are narrowly focused on reducing infections in bars and restaurants, while events have been spared widespread cancellations. If the less stringent measures fail to change people’s behavior, the declaration will go on forever.

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Japan’s top virus adviser Shigeru Omi said lifting the state of emergency in time would be nearly impossible and restrictions could continue until March or April, although he said more late that it could be lifted in a month if the public cooperated. Either way, that would leave little room for making a decision on the games. Last year’s determination to postpone matches was taken in late March, even before the first more stringent emergency, which lasted until the end of May.

Not containing cases quickly would also impact planning, even for small-scale games. A need for extensive testing and quarantining of participants would add to the unprecedented logistical effort of reorganizing events, contractors and venues. It could also inflate Japan’s already historic price for games to 1.35 trillion yen ($ 13 billion).

The state of emergency will also complicate the arrival of participants, in addition to unresolved questions of whether to allow local and foreign fans. These determinations may be made more difficult by viral mutations first discovered in the UK and South Africa that have spread globally. Japan has already tightened its border controls in response to the new tensions.

The Tokyo 2020 committee has said it will have to decide on a spectator limit and restrictions on entry into the country from overseas by this spring, due to the ticketing process. Other measures to fight the coronavirus can still be adjusted after spring, according to the group. As of now, the games are slated to start on July 23, a year after their initial launch.

Examples galore

The widespread resumption of sporting events in countries around the world, regardless of their number of infections, is adding to the pressure to host the Olympics. Almost all sporting events around the world were halted in early 2020 with the Tokyo games. By the summer, however, countries that had resisted the virus well, such as Japan, had resumed spectator sport, eventually with the fans.

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Leagues in the most affected regions, such as the National Basketball Association in the United States and the UK Premier League, have been successfully organized. Japan also hosted the first international sports tournament during the pandemic – a gymnastics competition in four countries – in November, with no apparent difficulties.

“There is too much evidence that professional sport can move forward in this environment,” said Roy Tomizawa, author of “1964 – The Greatest Year in Japanese History” on the first Olympic Games in Japan. summer of the country. “Athletes at the start of last year thought it wasn’t safe, but now they see other sports leagues running without major incident, so they don’t feel it’s such a big issue.

Vaccination promise

There is more reason to be optimistic that the games will take place this year than there was at the start of 2020. One is the development of several vaccines. Suga told a local television station last week that he expects the vaccines to be reassuring ahead of the Olympics.

Even so, most countries have not started immunizing their populations and may not be able to start in time. Japan is not expected to start immunizations until the end of February and vaccine distribution has been slow in most countries that have already started administering them.

Vaccines also raise difficult choices for organizers and athletes. Japanese officials have said they will not require vaccinations for foreign spectators, and the IOC has said the same for athletes, but that could change depending on the virus situation. IOC member Dick Pound suggested in a recent interview with the TBEN that shots might be a requirement for participants before entering Japan. He added that they would feature high on the priority vaccine list, which could raise questions of equity. Athletes may also be hesitant to get the vaccine due to performance issues.

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Split views

Some experts are divided over whether the games should continue. Norio Sugaya, visiting professor at the Tokyo Keio University School of Medicine and a member of a World Health Organization panel advising on pandemic influenza, said he was against hosting the Games Olympic this summer. “There’s no point in providing a medical perspective on something that most Japanese don’t want,” he said. In a poll conducted by the NHK from Jan. 9 to 11, 38% of those polled said the games should be canceled and 39% said they should be delayed again.

But Nobuhiko Okabe, director general of the Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health and a member of the government expert panel, said it would be possible to organize the games in one form or another even today.

“The most important thing for the Olympics is that the athletes can compete,” he said. “In this sense, it is possible to organize the games given the current scale of infections.”

Yoshihito Niki, visiting professor at Showa University’s infectious disease division, said one option would be to increase the interval between games to alleviate concerns about infections. “If they host the games this summer, they should separate the sporting events and run them sporadically, like two games a week at most,” he said.

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