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How can the Olympics protect 78,000 volunteers from the coronavirus?

TOKYO – For Olympic host cities, one of the keys to the success of the Games is the army of volunteers who joyfully perform a variety of tasks, such as fetching water, driving Olympic vehicles, performing for athletes or wear medals at ceremonies.

If the rescheduled Tokyo Games go ahead as planned this summer, around 78,000 volunteers will have another responsibility: preventing the spread of the coronavirus, both among participants and among themselves.

To protect themselves, volunteers are offered little more than a few sheet masks, a bottle of disinfectant, and social distancing mantras. Unless they qualify for the vaccination thanks to the slow age-based rollout in Japan, they will not be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to do this,” said Akiko Kariya, 40, a paralegal in Tokyo who signed up to volunteer as a performer. The Olympic committee “didn’t tell us exactly what it would do to keep us safe.”

While organizers have scrambled to assure the world that Tokyo can host the Games amid a pandemic, volunteers have been left largely alone to figure out how to avoid infection.

Much of the postponed Olympics planning has a seat quality of the pants. With less than three months to go before the opening ceremony, the organizers still have to decide whether national spectators will be admitted, nor to specify who, besides the athletes, will be regularly checked.

Tens of thousands of attendees will descend to Tokyo from more than 200 countries after nearly a year in which Japan’s borders were largely closed to foreigners. Volunteer assignments will put them in contact with many Olympic visitors as they enter and leave a “bubble” that will encompass the Olympic Village and other venues.

“There are a lot of people who have to get in and out of the bubble, and they are not protected at all and are not even tested,” said Barbara G. Holthus, volunteer and deputy director of the German Institute of Japanese studies. in Tokyo. “I see the risk of a mass market event.”

A flyer distributed to volunteers advises them to ask visitors to stand at least three feet – a little over three feet – from each other. During shifts, they must frequently disinfect their hands. If they are offering help to someone, they should avoid facing the other person directly and never speak without a mask.

“Wearing a mask and washing your hands is very basic, but doing this to the max is the most important thing we can do,” said Natsuki Den, senior director of volunteer promotion for the Tokyo organizing committee. .

“People often say, ‘This is so basic, is that all you can do? Ms. Den said. But if every volunteer implements these basic measures, she says, “it can really limit the risk. Beyond that, it’s hard to think of any magical countermeasures, as they don’t really exist.

Although the majority of the Japanese public has remained opposed to hosting the Olympics this year, many volunteers say they are committed, at least in principle, to fostering international brotherhood after more than a year of isolation. (The ranks of the volunteers were hit hard when around 1,000 volunteers resigned after the first chairman of the Tokyo organizing committee, Toshiro Mori, made sexist comments.)

But volunteers are worried about their own health as well as the safety of athletes and other Olympic participants, especially as Tokyo is seeing new peaks in cases of the virus. The capital is currently in a state of emergency.

“I’m afraid of catching the virus and showing no symptoms, and accidentally giving it to athletes,” said Yuto Hirano, 30, who works at a tech company in Tokyo and is responsible for helping athletes. athletes behind the scenes at Paralympic events for boccia, a ball sport. “I want to protect myself so that I can protect them.”

In addition to Olympic volunteers, the organizers must recruit medical staff to take care of the Games. Typically, doctors and nurses also volunteer to work at the Olympics, but this year, with the medical system overburdened after a year of battling the coronavirus, healthcare workers have started to balk.

“We are surprised at the ongoing discussion to request the sending of 500 nurses to the Tokyo Olympics,” the Japan Federation of Healthcare Workers’ Unions said in a statement posted on its website, adding that “the Now is not the time for the Olympics, it is time to take coronavirus countermeasures. “

As the pandemic rages on, some non-medical volunteers are doing everything to keep them safe. Yoko Aoshima, 49, who teaches English at a business school in Shizuoka, about 145 km from Tokyo, booked a hotel for the days she has to work, costing 110,000 yen, or about $ 1,000. This means she won’t have to commute.

To avoid public transport in Tokyo, she plans to buy a bicycle when she arrives in Tokyo to go to the field hockey stadium where she is assigned shifts.

But Ms Aoshima, who has decided to volunteer in part to honor her father’s legacy, a former physical education teacher, wonders how she will protect her family when she returns home after the Games.

“When I return to Shizuoka, is it safe enough for my family to stay with me?” Ms. Aoshima asked. “Will I be able to return to work?” She said she had already purchased a few home coronavirus tests to use after the Olympics.

For volunteers who have spent the past year avoiding crowds, the concept of suddenly being brought in contact with athletes, coaches, officials or members of the media outside of Japan triggers a sense of cognitive dissonance. .

“I only saw one friend last year when she had a baby,” said Ms. Kariya, the paralegal in Tokyo. “I go to the supermarket or the bank, where I really need to go. The last time I took the train was last March.

In the absence of additional security measures, Ms Kariya said she was considering leaving her volunteer position.

Many volunteers are disappointed not to be offered vaccines before the Games. So far, organizers have said they do not plan to prioritize Japanese Olympic athletes for vaccination, let alone volunteers.

“They can’t say they have priority because then people would start yelling at them,” said Chiharu “Charles” Nishikawa, 61, who volunteered at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. and London in 2012 and advises the Olympic Committee. about volunteering.

Some volunteers said they feared organizers might not have the resources to monitor everyone for compliance with the rules, including wearing masks, avoiding eating in restaurants and staying out. gap in public transport.

Ms Holthus said volunteers could be placed in a difficult position, given that their main role is to project an image of harmonious hospitality.

A volunteer handbook published before the Olympics was postponed last year encouraged them to “speak to people with a smile”. In online sessions and other posts since, Ms Holthus said: “They keep saying, ‘Oh, and your smile is going to be so important.'”

“We are supposed to wear masks,” she said. “So I find that very insensitive.”

Not all volunteers have serious safety concerns. Some have said they expect widespread adherence to the rules, given what is at stake.

“I think the athletes will do whatever it takes to compete in the Olympics,” said Philbert Ono, travel writer, photographer and translator.

“If we tell them to wear a mask, they will wear a mask,” he said. “When they eat their meals, they sit very far from each other, separated and face only one direction. So I think they’re very disciplined and they know what’s at stake. “

Hikari Hida contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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