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Editorial: As Tokyo prepares to host Olympics, where are plans to block COVID surge?

The Japanese government has decided to declare a fourth state of emergency for Tokyo to counter the spread of the coronavirus. The declaration will remain in effect until Aug. 22, which means that the Tokyo Olympic Games are set to be held under a state of emergency.

    The government was cornered into declaring the new state of emergency just three weeks after the previous one was lifted. Experts had warned that infections could flare up again at an early stage as new case numbers had not been sufficiently reduced. The government bears a heavy responsibility for allowing such a situation to develop.

    On July 7 the number of new infections in Tokyo surpassed 900 for the first time in around two months. While infections have been suppressed among older people whose vaccinations against COVID-19 are progressing, the numbers of people being admitted to hospital and those with severe symptoms of the disease are increasing, mainly among those in their 40s and 50s.

    Amid concerns about the strain on Japan's medical system, tens of thousands of people are set to arrive in Japan from across the world in conjunction with the staging of the Olympics. It is an abnormal state of affairs -- even Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government's COVID-19 subcommittee, has stated that holding the games is "not normal under current conditions."

    While the Olympics are going ahead amid a state of emergency that places a burden on the public, the government has not clearly explained the reason for holding the games. Meanwhile, it is also doubtful whether sufficient measures have been taken to prevent an explosive spread of infections.

    There is concern among experts that declarations of states of emergency may be losing their effectiveness. One reason for this is the spread of a highly infectious variant of the virus first detected in India. This variant is said to have caused a resurgence of infections in Britain, a country where vaccinations against COVID-19 have progressed. There are estimates that the variant is responsible for about 30% of infections in Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama.

    It has also been pointed out that the public and businesses have grown weary of self-restraint. With states of emergency and quasi-emergencies having continued since January, it has become difficult to control the number of people going out. The government has asked businesses to shorten their hours and made other requests, but there have been delays in the payment of benefits to people in need and compensation to businesses cooperating with such requests, and their sense of burden is growing.

    The government is calling on the public to refrain from moving around during the upcoming four-day holiday period in July and during the Obon period in mid-August. Holding the Olympic Games, a massive sporting event, flies in the face of this.

    In spite of this, the Olympic organizing committee continued to make last-minute adjustments with a view to allow spectators into venues. At first there were plans to allowing a maximum of 10,000 people into venues, capped at 50% of the venue's capacity, This, however, was changed to a maximum of 5,000 people or 50% of the venue's capacity, whichever was smaller, and officials apparently considered holding a new lottery for tickets.

    But these plans were drastically revised with the latest decision to declare another state of emergency. There was no way that society could side with a move to allow spectators into venues and create a celebratory mood amid restrictions on people's lives under the state of emergency.

    We must say it was a big mistake to delay the decision to restrict spectators from Olympic venues until just before the games. This delay is the result of the government and the Olympic organizing committee continuing to take an ad hoc response without clarifying where responsibility lies.

    Besides Tokyo, Olympic events are set to be held in eight prefectures: Hokkaido, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Yamanashi, and Shizuoka. These other prefectures will not be under states of emergency, but there is a risk that infections could spread in the future. If the government is going to prioritize protecting people's lives, then holding the games without any spectators at all is a major premise.

    Related parties who enter the venues are not treated as spectators. They include members of international sports organizations and sponsors, but many of them are not actually involved in the running of the games.

    Allowing the minimum necessary number of players, coaches, referees and management personnel into venues may be sufficient. Even at the opening and closing ceremonies, many officials surely could participate online.

    The idea of allowing children and students to attend the games in groups should also be abandoned, and in order to decrease the flow of people, operation of special trains scheduled by railway companies late at night during the games should be canceled.

    Infection control measures in the athlete's village are another issue. The village will officially open on July 13, welcoming teams of athletes from around the world. In addition to border control measures at airports, management of people's behavior after they enter the country is indispensable.

    A worst-case scenario of a collapse of Japan's medical system due to a rapid expansion of infections could occur in the future. Organizers need to consider the options of discontinuing the games or canceling events depending on the circumstances.

    There are only two weeks left until the opening ceremony on July 23. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has repeatedly stressed "We will place top priority on public safety and security." If that's the case, then thorough measures to prevent an explosion of infections must be implemented.

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