With 100 days until the Tokyo Olympics, Japan has vaccinated less than 1% of its population. That’s a problem

When 2020 Tokyo Olympics volunteers have in recent weeks asked officials how they’ll be protected from Covid-19, given the foreign athletes pouring into Japan for the event and the country’s low vaccination rate, the answer has been simple.

They’ll be given a small bottle of hand sanitizer and two masks each.

“They don’t talk about vaccines, they don’t even talk about us being tested,” said German volunteer Barbara Holthus, who is director of Sophia University’s German Institute for Japanese Studies, in Tokyo.

With 100 days to go until the Games, already postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, questions remain over how Tokyo can hold a massive sporting event and keep volunteers, athletes, officials — and the Japanese public — safe from Covid-19.

That concern has been amplified by Japan’s battle with a looming fourth wave. The country passed 500,000 total coronavirus cases on Saturday, and some prefectures are again tightening their Covid-19 restrictions as daily infections grow. Hideaki Oka, a professor at Saitama Medical University, said Japan may not be able to contain the latest wave before the Games begin on July 23.

While Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated Monday his pledge to secure 100 million vaccine doses by the end of June, so far Japan has only vaccinated about 1.1 million of its 126 million people — less than 1% of the population. Only 0.4% have received two doses.

Holthus said supporting the Games was meant to be a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. “But now it’s just a really dangerous experience,” she said.

In a statement to CNN, Tokyo 2020 organizers said 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, we hope that vaccines will be properly administered at home and abroad and that the infection will, therefore, be reduced as a whole,” the statement said.

Slow vaccine rollout

With a $25 billion Olympics to host, arguably no country in Asia had more incentive than Japan to get its Covid-19 cases under control and vaccinate its population.

Yet Japanese regulators were slow to approve Covid-19 vaccines, compared to other governments, taking more than two months to allow the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Its rollout did not begin until February, and senior citizens only began to receive their doses on April 12, according to Kyodo News.

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.

“They say elderly citizens are supposed to have a vaccination by June, but in reality, even medical staff who is treating Covid hasn’t got vaccinated yet,” said Oka from Saitama Medical University, adding he didn’t believe the June vaccination target would be met.

Oka said the government should prioritize vaccinating all athletes entering the country for the Games, but the Japanese government has resisted this approach, after media reports that Olympians would be prioritized sparked a social media backlash in Japan.

Beijing had offered to provide vaccines for all athletes in the 2020 Olympics but Tokyo turned down the offer, saying no Chinese-made options were yet authorized for use in Japan.

International spectators have been banned from the Games to try to lower the risk of Covid-19 spreading at the event. But more than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries are expected to participate.

Without plans to vaccinate athletes, the tens of thousands of volunteers taking part stand little chance of protection.

Holthus said Tokyo 2020 President Hashimoto Seiko told volunteers during a Zoom call she was relying “on your smile” to make the Olympics a success — a particularly jarring claim because they would all be wearing masks.

“(We were told) ‘Your smile is going to make the Olympics exist’ and you wonder, are you kidding me?” said Holthus, who is scheduled to volunteer as a ticket collector.

One volunteer, who attended an 80-minute lecture on infectious disease control for Games volunteers, said a top Japanese expert in infectious diseases told them they shouldn’t count on being vaccinated ahead of the event.

“(He said) unless you are elderly there won’t be enough time for ordinary people to get vaccinated,” said the volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid being excluded from her role in the Olympics. She said she felt angry and scared after the presentation.

The volunteer, who had taken part in previous Olympics, said she was considering dropping out unless all volunteers were vaccinated. “Not doing so is showing reckless disregard for our lives, and the optimal safe environment that Japan as a host country is obligated to provide,” she said.

Tokyo 2020 didn’t respond to questions on the content of the presentation given to volunteers.

Questions over athletes

Even countries with almost no infections have struggled to hold major sporting events during the pandemic.

In January, some players arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis tournament complained on social media about the strict health screening measures they encountered. At one point, spectators were banned for several days amid a small Covid-19 outbreak in the city.

For Japan, where there were 2,112 new cases on Tuesday, it is going to be a bigger challenge.

International participants will need a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours before they travel to Japan, where they will be retested, according to the Tokyo 2020 Playbook released by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on February 21.

But according to the IOC document, athletes will not be required to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Japan, unless they have breached the country’s Covid-19 precautions or potentially been exposed to the virus.

During the Games, participants will be “tested for Covid-19 at different intervals,” and all athletes and visitors will be assigned a “Covid-19 Liaison Officer.”

International guests have been asked to only leave their accommodation to “go to official Games venues and limited additional locations,” a list of which will be released in the second playbook, due to publish this month.

Hugs and high-fives are to be avoided and no public transport should be used. A face mask must be worn at all times.

Tokyo 2020 organizers did not respond to questions on how social distancing measures would be maintained at the Olympic village.

An Olympic super-spreader event?

While athletes in the Olympic village will have all tested negative before arriving in Japan, they will inevitably come in contact with tens of thousands of untested volunteers who will be shuttling between the Olympic venues and their homes.

The Tokyo 2020 website said volunteers should take public transport to Olympic venues when they are volunteering. In Tokyo on Tuesday there were 510 new confirmed cases of Covid-19.

In a statement to CNN, Tokyo 2020 said it had published a leaflet informing volunteers about Covid-19 countermeasures, including mask wearing, washing hands and keeping a safe distance from others.

In response to a question on whether any Tokyo 2020 events would be postponed due to Covid, the statement said that the situation was “changing every moment.”

Holthus said in addition to the hand sanitizer and two face masks, Games officials had offered volunteers a “health condition diary” in which they could record their own health status.

“It’s going to be concentrated groups of people from all over the world, mixing together. What if there is a cluster that develops in one of the Olympic venues? What if it comes from one of us?” she said.

Oka, the Saitama Medical University professor, shared the volunteers’ concerns, saying the Games could enable the spread of dangerous Covid-19 variants not only through Japan, but around the world.

Oka said he was also concerned Japan’s already stretched hospital system wouldn’t be able to cope if there was a sudden influx of athletes and volunteers infected with the virus. “As an infectious disease specialist, I cannot approve of holding the Games in a situation where not enough vaccinations has been made and enough countermeasures put in place,” he said.

In a statement to CNN, the Tokyo 2020 organizing body said it had “high hopes” the Covid-19 situation in Japan would improve ahead of the Olympics. “We will continue to work closely with these parties as we prepare to deliver a safe and secure Games this summer,” the statement said.

Olympics volunteer Philbert Ono said he trusted the government and the IOC to keep the athletes and volunteers safe.

“The Japanese, they love to witness history. And you know this Olympics is very, very much a historical Olympics … this is going to be a very different Olympics. And that’s another thing I’m looking forward to,” he said. “I just want to see how they do it.”

But Holthus said she didn’t believe the Games should go ahead with the current state of preparation, which was a “recipe for a super spreader event.”

“We can’t even yet imagine how bad it could be,” she said. “But the damage will be done once the Games are being held. There’s no turning that back once everybody flies in.”

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