A dramatic increase in coronavirus cases in Tokyo has rekindled speculation about the Olympics, which are expected to open in the city in just over six months.
Japan on Wednesday widened its coronavirus state of emergency to cover more than half of the population, as the spike in infections sparked warnings of intense pressure on hospitals.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said anti-virus measures introduced in the greater Tokyo area – at the center of the latest wave of cases – would be extended to include seven other prefectures.
Suga said he would “take all measures” to protect lives, adding that all non-resident foreign nationals would be banned from entering Japan until the emergency measures were lifted. Japan had previously cleared business travelers from 11 Asian countries where the number of cases appeared to be under control.
Yoshiro Mori, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, said preparations will continue, despite growing doubts about the possibility of holding the Games while the pandemic continues. Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, said postponing them a second time would be “absolutely impossible”.
The Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided in March last year to postpone Tokyo 2020 for a year due to the pandemic, and agreed a second delay was out of the question. The only options left are to go ahead this summer or to cancel the Games altogether.
Mori conceded that organizers should decide soon whether or not to allow foreign spectators to attend. “I think we will have to make a very difficult decision between February and March,” he said.
Takeshi Niinami, general manager of Japanese drinks group Suntory, said he was not sure the games could take place, echoing doubts voiced last week by senior IOC member Dick Pound.
“I don’t know if we will be able to host the Tokyo Olympics or not,” Niinami said. “But it’s a big message to the world… we have to make every effort.”
The IOC and the organizers of the Games say they have a “toolbox” of measures that will ensure the safety of 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as well as tens of thousands of officials and other personnel linked to the Games, but they are not due. to reveal detailed plans through the spring of the northern hemisphere.
Speculation is mounting that a decision on the future of the Games will have to be made by the end of March when the torch relay, involving 10,000 runners, is due to start in Fukushima.
Japan is not expected to start immunizing its 126 million people until the end of February at the earliest, starting with 10,000 frontline medical workers, followed by vulnerable elderly people in March.
The government’s determination to move forward with a “safe and secure” Olympics is at odds with public opinion, which has turned against the Games since Covid-19 cases began to rise in the country. host city and other parts of the country towards the end of last year. year.
Several opinion polls have shown that a clear majority of Japanese are opposed to hosting the Games this year. A poll by public broadcaster NHK on Wednesday found that only 16% believed the Olympics should be held in July, while a total of 77% believed they should be canceled or postponed.
“The Japanese public is already increasingly inclined to oppose the hosting of the Olympics this summer, and the state of emergency reinforces the perception that it is a lost cause,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo.
While Japan has averted a catastrophic Covid-19 outbreak, the country is struggling to contain the most recent surge. The number of cases nationwide topped 300,000 on Wednesday, while the death toll reached 4,187, NHK said.
As part of the latest move, Osaka and other parts of western Japan will join the state of emergency with Aichi, a centrally located industrial and commercial hub, and Fukuoka in the southwest.
Overall, the measures, originally slated to end on February 7, will apply to 11 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, accounting for 60 percent of its GDP and just over half of its population.
“Unless we get infections under control in big cities, we cannot stop the nationwide spread,” said Health Minister Norihisa Tamura.
Japanese authorities do not have the legal powers to enforce anti-virus measures, although the government is considering legislation to impose fines on businesses such as bars and restaurants that do not comply with demands to close before 8 p.m. .
In addition, companies were urged to increase the supply of remote work in an effort to reduce the use of public transport, and people were encouraged to avoid non-essential outings.
Suga, whose approval ratings have dropped because of his handling of the pandemic, is hesitant to introduce measures that could harm the world’s third-largest economy.
Some health experts have warned that hospitals are struggling to cope with an influx of Covid patients, and a month-long ‘soft lockdown’ is unlikely to have much of an impact on the number of cases .
“Cases are very unlikely to decrease after just a month,” said Yoshihito Niki, infectious disease specialist and professor at Showa University Hospital. “Japan has been called a success story and there has been talk of the so-called X factor – something that makes Japanese people more resistant to the virus – but it’s a complete fantasy.”