Japan extends viral emergency with safe Olympics at stake
Japan extended the coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas by 20 days on Friday, with infections still not slowing down as it prepares to host the Olympics in just over 50 days.
Cases remain high and medical systems in Osaka, the hardest-hit region in western Japan, are still overburdened, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said when announcing the decision.
“I am aware that many people are expressing their concern about the hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” he said. “I take them seriously and will make preparations for safe and secure games.”
He said the next three weeks are “an extremely important time for us to deliver results” in a two-pronged battle to control infections while scaling up vaccinations.
The current state of emergency in the capital and eight other metropolitan areas was due to end next Monday, but hospitals in some areas are still overflowing with COVID-19 patients and severe cases have recently reached new highs.
The 20-day extension covers nine areas ranging from Hokkaido in the north to Fukuoka in the south. A 10th zone, the prefecture of the southern island of Okinawa, is already in an emergency until June 20.
Olympic organizers have to decide around this time whether or not to allow fans, after overseas spectators were banned months ago. A plan to prioritize vaccinations for Japanese athletes is expected to begin at that time, according to media reports.
The Olympics are set to begin on July 23 after a one-year postponement due to the pandemic, and concerns about new variants and the slow rollout of vaccination in Japan have sparked calls from the public, medical experts and even from a sponsor to cancel the games.
Suga’s public support ratings have dropped to around 30%, down from around 70% when he took office in September.
Experts have warned that the variants are infecting more people, leaving them seriously ill and flooding hospitals in some areas.
Japan has fallen behind on vaccinations due to bureaucratic missteps and planning and a shortage of medical staff. Only 2.3% of the population has been fully immunized and the current phase targeting the elderly is not expected to end until the games start.
Still, Suga and his government are determined to host the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee also said the games will continue even if the host city of Tokyo is under emergency measures.
The government has been pushing to speed up vaccinations and aims to administer up to 1 million per day, but some experts believe this is too optimistic a target.
Japan has reported around 730,000 cases of the coronavirus and more than 12,700 deaths.