They will receive a small bottle of hand sanitizer and two masks each.
“They don’t talk about vaccines, they don’t even talk about the fact that we are being tested,” said German volunteer Barbara Holthus, director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo.
This concern was magnified by Japan’s battle against an impending fourth wave. The country topped the total of 500,000 coronavirus cases on Saturday, and some prefectures are tightening their restrictions on Covid-19 again as daily infections increase. Hideaki Oka, a professor at Saitama Medical University, said Japan may not be able to contain the last wave before the Games start on July 23.
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 host “a safe and secure Games without assuming that there will be a vaccine and even without vaccines.”
“On the other hand, we hope that the vaccines will be properly administered at home and abroad and that the infection will, therefore, be reduced overall,” the statement said.
Slow vaccine deployment
With a $ 25 billion Olympics to host, arguably no country in Asia had more incentive than Japan to bring its Covid-19 cases under control and vaccinate its population.
Yet Japanese regulators have been slow to approve Covid-19 vaccines, compared to other governments, taking more than two months to clear the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use. Its rollout didn’t start until February, and the seniors didn’t start receiving their doses until April 12, according to Kyodo News.
Experts said part of the delay was due to official caution in avoiding vaccine skepticism that has hampered previous vaccination efforts in Japan. Regardless, this approach has left Japan behind other Asian countries, such as China, which administered 171 million vaccines, and India, which distributed 108 million doses.
“They say elderly citizens are supposed to get vaccinated by June, but in reality even medical staff who treat Covid have not yet been vaccinated,” Oka of Saitama Medical University said, adding that he did not believe in the June vaccination target. would be satisfied.
Oka said the government should prioritize the vaccination of all athletes entering the country for the Games, but the Japanese government resisted this approach, after media reports that Olympians were given priority sparked a backlash on social media in Japan.
Beijing had offered to provide vaccines to all athletes at the 2020 Olympics, but Tokyo declined the offer, saying no Chinese-made options were yet allowed in Japan.
International spectators have been banned from the Games in an attempt to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid-19 during the event. But more than 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries are expected to participate.
Without plans to vaccinate athletes, the tens of thousands of volunteers who participate are unlikely to be protected.
Holthus said Tokyo 2020 President Hashimoto Seiko told volunteers during a Zoom call that she was counting “on your smile” to make the Olympics a success – a particularly shocking claim as they would all be wearing masks. .
“(We were told)” Your smile will make the Olympics exist “and you wonder, are you kidding me? Said Holthus, who is expected to volunteer as a ticket collector.
A volunteer, who attended an 80-minute conference on infectious disease control for Games volunteers, a leading Japanese infectious disease expert told them they should not rely on vaccinations before the event.
“(He said) Unless you’re old, ordinary people won’t have enough time to get vaccinated,” said the volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid being excluded from her role. at the Olympic games. She said she felt angry and scared after the presentation.
The volunteer, who had competed in the previous Olympics, said she was considering giving up unless all volunteers were vaccinated. “Failure to do so is to show reckless disregard for our lives and the optimal security environment that Japan, as a host nation, is obligated to provide,” she said.
Tokyo 2020 did not respond to questions about the content of the presentation given to volunteers.
Questions about athletes
Even countries with virtually no infection have struggled to host 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 outbreak of Covid-19 in the city.
For Japan, where there were 2,112 new cases on Tuesday, it will be a bigger challenge.
International participants will need a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours before their trip 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 self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Japan, unless they have violated the country’s Covid-19 precautions or have been potentially 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 urged to leave their accommodation only to “visit official Games websites and additional limited locations,” a list of which will be published in the second playbook, which is expected to be released 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 about how social distancing measures would be maintained at the Olympic Village.
An Olympic super-spreader event?
While the athletes in the Olympic Village will all have tested negative before arriving in Japan, they will inevitably come into contact with tens of thousands of untested volunteers who will commute between Olympic venues and their homes.
The Tokyo 2020 website said volunteers should take public transportation to Olympic venues when volunteering. In Tokyo on Tuesday there were 510 new confirmed cases of Covid-19.
In a statement to CNN, Tokyo 2020 said it released a leaflet informing volunteers of Covid-19 countermeasures, including wearing masks, washing hands and keeping others at bay.
In response to whether any Tokyo 2020 events would be postponed due to Covid, the statement said the situation “is changing every moment.”
Holthus said that in addition to hand sanitizer and two face masks, Games officials gave volunteers a “health status diary” in which they could record their own health status.
“It will be concentrated groups of people from all over the world, mixing together. What if there was a cluster growing in one of the Olympic venues? What if it came from one of us? ” she said.
Oka, the professor at Saitama University of Medicine, shared the concerns of the volunteers, saying the Games could allow the spread of dangerous variants of Covid-19 not only across Japan, but around the world.
Oka said he was also concerned that Japan’s already overburdened hospital system could not 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 there are not enough vaccinations and enough countermeasures in place,” he said.
In a statement to CNN, the Tokyo 2020 organizing body said it had “high hopes” that the Covid-19 situation in Japan will improve ahead of the Olympics. “We will continue to work closely with these parties as we prepare for a safe and secure Games this summer,” the statement said.
Olympic Games volunteer Philbert Ono said he trusted the government and the IOC to keep athletes and volunteers safe.
“The Japanese love to witness history. And you know these Olympics are really historic Olympics… they’ll be 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 doesn’t believe the Games should take place in the current state of preparation, which was a “recipe for a super spreader event.”
“We can’t even imagine how bad it could be yet,” she said. “But the damage will be done once the Games take place. There will be no turning back once everyone gets on the plane. “