As the coronavirus spreads in Japan ahead of the Tokyo Olympics from 11 weeks, one of the least vaccinated countries in the world is showing signs of tension, both societal and political.
The government – desperate to show a worried public that it is in control of virus-fighting efforts even as it pushes a massive sporting event that growing numbers of Japanese oppose the organization of a pandemic – has announced Friday its decision to extend and prolong the state of emergency in Tokyo and other regions until May 31.
For Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the declaration of emergency is both a health measure and a political tightrope walk as internal criticism rises against Japan’s apparent determination to hold the Olympics at all costs.
“I understand there are concerns about the organization of the Olympics,” said Suga. He said that foreign athletes and other participants will be strictly separated from the Japanese public and that “it is possible to organize safe and secure Olympics while protecting people’s lives and health.”
Suga said that a donation of vaccines by Pfizer Inc. to the International Olympic Committee for athletes will be “a great contribution” to the safety of the games.
A speculated visit in mid-May by President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach has become “extremely difficult” due to the extension of the emergency, Japanese organization chief Seiko Hashimoto told a conference on Friday. hurry.
The government has also been criticized for its rollout of the snail-pace vaccination, which has fully covered less than 1% of the population since vaccinations began in mid-February.
Suga pledged on Friday to speed up vaccinations so that the 36 million elderly Japanese can be fully immunized by the end of July. He set a daily target of 1 million shots, more than 20 times the current daily average, but did not explain how that would be possible amid a shortage of medical staff able to get vaccinated.
Japan has avoided implementing a strict lockdown to fight infections, and past states of emergency have had few teeth, with people and businesses free to ignore the provisions. These measures have since been tightened, but they come as citizens show increased impatience and less willingness to cooperate, making the emergency declaration possible to be less effective.
The current state of emergency in the prefectures of Tokyo and Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in the west was due to end on Tuesday. Suga said his government has decided to expand it to those areas and expand it to Aichi in central Japan and Fukuoka in the south.
On Friday, two days after Golden Week vacationers returned to their daily routines, Tokyo recorded 907 new cases of coronavirus infections, up sharply from 635 when the state of emergency began in the city. capital last month, but well above the 100 target that some experts recommend.
Officials and experts say far fewer people may have been tested for the virus during the holidays, when many testing centers and hospitals have been closed, and warn that numbers during and just after the holiday period may not reflect reality.
During the holidays, many more people than last year were seen in the sights of Kyoto and Nara despite requests to stay at home. With drinking establishments closed, young people carrying canned beer and snacks gathered in the parks and streets of downtown Tokyo. When the holidays ended, many defied the demands for remote work and returned to their desks on crowded trains.
The extension heightens uncertainties over a speculated May 17 visit by President of the International Olympic Games Committee Thomas Bach, and over whether Japan can safely host the postponed Olympics from last year and currently scheduled from July 23 to August 23. 8.
Despite criticism for his slowness in taking anti-virus measures, Suga was hesitant to harm the economy already damaged by the pandemic and vowed to keep the state of emergency “short and intensive”, although Experts have said that just over two weeks would be too short to effectively slow infections and even stretching may be insufficient.
Dr Shigeru Omi, head of a government task force, warned officials on Friday that a hasty end to the emergency would only invite an immediate resurgence.
The current emergency is the third in Japan and came just one month after the end of an earlier measure in the Tokyo area.
Less strict quasi-urgent measures will be extended to eight prefectures out of the current six, where bars and restaurants must close early.
Japan has recorded around 621,000 cases including around 10,600 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The hardest-hit medical systems in Osaka have come under heavy pressure due to a COVID-19 outbreak that is hampering mainstream healthcare, experts say. A number of patients have recently died at home after their condition worsened while awaiting hospital vacations.
Past emergency measures only allowed non-binding requests. In February, the government toughened an anti-virus measures law to allow authorities to issue binding orders for non-essential businesses to shorten their hours or shut down, in exchange for compensation for those who comply and penalties. for offenders.
The shutdown requirements will be relaxed somewhat. Bars, karaoke studios and most other entertainment facilities will have to remain closed until the end of May, but department stores will be able to operate for shorter hours and stadiums and concert halls will be able to accommodate up to the end of May. ‘to 5,000 people or half of their capacity. .
Wearing masks, staying at home and other measures intended for the general public remain non-compulsory requests.