Will the Olympics become a COVID-19 superspreader event?

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Photo via Scott Kouchi for Real Estate Japan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Tokyo-hosted Olympics are now just 100 days away, but less than 1% of the Japanese population has received even one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination, leading to concerns that the global event could become a superspreader event. 

As CNN reported, “Questions remain over how Tokyo can hold a massive sporting event and keep volunteers, athletes, officials—and the Japanese public—safe from COVID-19,” even with the global sporting event postponed a year due to the pandemic. (The Opening Ceremonies are currently slated for July 23.) 

Japan passed 500,000 total coronavirus cases on April 10, and some prefectures in the country are tightening restrictions as the rate of infections appears to be rising. 

Organizers of the event—still bearing the Tokyo 2020 name despite being pushed to 2021—told CNN they were preparing to hold “a safe and secure Games without presuming there will be a vaccine and even without vaccines.”

“On the other hand,” they added, “we hope that vaccines will be properly administered at home and abroad and that the infection will, therefore, be reduced as a whole.”

On April 12, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reasserted Japan’s plan to secure 100 million vaccine doses by the end of June. However, Japan has only vaccinated about 1.1 million of its 126 million people to date, and only 0.4% of the nation’s people have received two doses.

That’s due in large part to Japan’s relatively late start to its vaccine rollout compared to other major industrialized nations. CNN noted that Japanese regulators were slow to approve the COVID-19 vaccines, taking more than two months to allow the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be used. The distribution process began in February, and senior citizens only began to receive doses on April 12. 

Wrote CNN: “Experts said part of the delay was due to official caution designed to avoid the vaccine skepticism that has damaged previous vaccination efforts in Japan. Either way, that approach has left Japan lagging other Asian nations, such as China, which has administered 171 million vaccinations, and India, which has given out 108 million doses.” 

Citizens are concerned about COVID and the Olympics

The Japan Times reported that “over 60% of people in Japan are dissatisfied with the progress of the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout that is trailing many developed countries,” according to a phone poll conducted between April 10-12. 

That poll also revealed 92.6% said they felt anxious about a resurgence of infections, with only 35.9% expressing approval of Japan’s pandemic handling to date compared to 56.5% who disapprove. 

The poll also expressed specific concern about the Olympics being held this summer while the COVID pandemic is still in existence. Nearly 40% believed the postponed Olympics and companion Paralympics should be canceled, while 32.8% thought they should be rescheduled. Only 24.5% responded that the games should be held as scheduled.

That corresponded with what NBC New York reported—its article noted “various polls suggest up to 80% of Japanese want the Olympics canceled or postponed,” with many scientists coming out against the quadrennial games operating under the current dates. 

There have already been changes to the torch relay, initially planned for 10,000 runners to pass through all of the nation’s 47 prefectures en route to Tokyo.

“Legs scheduled for Osaka this week were pulled from the streets because of surging COVID-19 cases and relocated into a city park—with no fans allowed,” NBC New York said. “Other legs across Japan are also sure to be disrupted.”

“It is best to not hold the Olympics given the considerable risks,” said Dr. Norio Sugaya, an infectious diseases expert at Keiyu Hospital in Yokohama, adding, “Japan is dangerous, not a safe place at all.” 

But Japanese officials aren’t just grappling with the pandemic; they’re also grappling with their public image. 

“The government is very conscious of how ‘the world’ views Japan,” Dr. Gill Steel, who teaches political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto, pointed out to NBC New York. “Canceling the Olympics would have been seen, at some level, as a public failure on the international stage.”

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Sources: CNN, Japan Times, NBC New York

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