Tokyo is seeing a record-breaking rise in covid-19 cases as thousands of athletes and coaches fly in from around the world for the postponed 2020 Olympic games. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga denies any link between the event and the surging number of infections.
Tokyo is currently in its fourth official state of emergency, which began on 12 July ahead of the Olympics and is now expected to last until 31 August. The measures include an alcohol ban in bars and restaurants and reduced opening hours. Okinawa is already under the same measures and Suga announced over the weekend that they would also be expanded to Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba and Osaka. Less stringent measures will also be introduced in five other prefectures: Hokkaido, Ishikawa, Hyogo, Kyoto, and Fukuoka.
The Olympics were originally scheduled for 2020 but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the Olympics are now taking place at a time when the country’s coronavirus situation is worse than it was the previous year, according to data on cases.
Tokyo saw a sharp rise in covid-19 cases from the start of July and rates last week had doubled from those seen the previous week. On 2 August, the city reported 3058 new cases and the infection rate in Tokyo now stands at 88 people per 100,000. Less than a third of the Japanese population has been fully vaccinated.
On 29 July, more than 10,000 new cases across Japan were reported for the first time. This record was beaten just days later when 12,340 cases were recorded on 1 August, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
“If the increase of infection does not stop, the severe symptoms cases will increase and the medical system may possibly be further under strain,” said Suga at a press conference.
Meanwhile, Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee, told The Japan Times that there was “barely any prospect” of curtailing the outbreak.
“Lives over Olympics”
The Olympic games have been scaled down from original plans, with only a third of the originally expected 180,000 people entering the country. Audiences are banned at most events and athletes wear masks when not competing. But 27 new covid-19 cases linked to the games were announced on Friday, bringing the total so far to 220. At least one athlete has had to withdraw due to a positive test. Protests against the games have taken place in Tokyo, with hundreds marching on the country’s national stadium with placards urging the government to put “Lives over Olympics”.
Europe saw a similar rise in infections during the Euro 2020 tournament. A decline in cases over previous months came to an end in July in part because of large numbers of people travelling to matches, said the World Health Organization. Germany’s interior minister Horst Seehofer said at the time that the decision to allow crowds was been “utterly irresponsible”.
But Kevin Tyler at the University of East Anglia, UK, says there is no clear evidence of a link between the games and the rise in infections, because competitors are tightly bubbled, and that the surging case numbers are instead down to the delta variant having made its way to Japan.
“Ordinarily, there would be concern that influx and mixing of potentially infected people from all over the world might spread different variants and promote mixing which could be problematic in producing new variants by recombination, but the [Olympic] planning appears to be pretty careful to avoid that and segregate athletes from the wider population,” he says.
The International Olympic Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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