With the start of the 2021 Summer Olympics now less than six weeks away, all eyes are on host country Japan – and its ongoing fight with COVID-19.
After largely containing the virus and avoiding massive outbreaks in the early stages of the pandemic, Japan has seen a spike in cases and deaths in recent months. Hospitals in some parts of the country have been under strain. And government officials have failed to quickly approve and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the country’s 126 million residents, leaving only 3% of the population fully vaccinated.
Shihoko Goto, a senior Northeast Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program, said those developments together have “put Japan in the limelight for all of the wrong reasons.”
“Rather than celebrating the Olympics, celebrating Japan as this model of efficiency, embracing technology … it’s actually led Japan to be the center of attention of what not to do,” Goto said.
Though Japan has ramped up vaccination efforts in the past week, and case numbers are declining again after a recent surge, there are lingering concerns in Japan about whether the Olympics can – or should – be safely held, beginning July 23. Local media polls in Japan indicate that the majority of citizens would prefer the Games not go on, and a petition to cancel them generated more than 350,000 signatures last month.
Olympic organizers, meanwhile, have repeatedly professed confidence in the COVID-19 protocols they are implementing for all attendees. And the International Olympic Committee has said for months that the Tokyo Games will go on.
In the early phases of the pandemic, Japan contained COVID-19 with aplomb.
According to online research site Our World in Data, Japan reported roughly 239,000 COVID-19 cases in all of 2020 – about 1,890 cases per 1 million residents. The United States, by comparison, had 20.25 million cases, more than 61,000 per 1 million residents.
This spring, however, that changed. Japan encountered two surges – the first in January, and the second in April and May. And as COVID-19 cases and deaths began to slow in other countries around the world, thanks to vaccines, they grew in Japan.
The country has had more than twice as many confirmed COVID-19 cases in the first half of 2021 (508,000) than it had in all of 2020. Though the seven-day average of cases has declined in recent weeks, which could signal that the latest wave has passed.
One of the factors contributing to Japan’s COVID-19 issues in 2021 is its vaccination program, which has been criticized as slow and overly cautious.
The Japanese government did not approve a vaccine for distribution until mid-February, several months after countries like the United States had started inoculating their most vulnerable populations. As a result, Japan is lagging behind its peers on the vaccine front, with only 3% of its residents fully vaccinated.
“Japan had more success in the first phase (of the COVID-19 pandemic),” said Michael R. Reich, a professor of international health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “And (it) has not had as much success in the vaccination – either the approval or the rollout – phase.”
The rising case numbers have prompted the Japanese government to declare a state of emergency in a large swath of the country.
Ten of Japan’s 47 prefectures – including Tokyo – are under a state of emergency through June 20. (The other nine prefectures affected are Aichi, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Hokkaido, Hyogo, Kyoto, Okayama, Okinawa and Osaka.)
Kyodo News reported that the 10 prefectures together account for more than 40% of Japan’s population and half of its economy.
The IOC is not requiring that athletes be vaccinated prior to competing in Tokyo. But it has indicated that more than 80% of the stakeholders in the Olympic Village this summer will have received their shots before they arrive.
In some countries, including Japan, athletes are receiving access to vaccines – through the IOC or their national Olympic committee – prior to the general public. Elsewhere, like in the United States, athletes have been able to obtain shots as part of the country’s overall distribution process.
It is still unclear how many athletes from each country will be competing in the Tokyo Olympics, but many of the nations that usually bring the largest delegations have also vaccinated a sizable chunk of their overall populations. Eight of the 11 countries that brought 300 athletes or more to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have vaccinated at least 10% of their citizens.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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