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Olympic organizers and the Japanese government are stepping up vaccinations, inside and outside the Olympic Village. It remains to be seen if the push will be the antidote to widespread opposition in Japan to holding the games amid the pandemic and pervasive fear that the event will threaten public health.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Wednesday that about 75% of potential Olympic and Paralympic athletes have either received their injections or are planning to do so. They predict that over 80% will be inoculated by the time the games start in just over six weeks.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said his goal is to complete the vaccination of all citizens who want it by November. The government previously targeted February 2022 as the end date of vaccinations. Suga also pledged this week to further reduce the number of Olympic officials, staff and journalists entering Japan.
Vaccine deployment in Japan is finally accelerating
While the vaccine rollout in Japan still lags behind other developed economies, the pace has picked up in recent days. At mass vaccination sites in Tokyo and Osaka, military medical personnel vaccinated elderly people. Japanese companies are setting up vaccination programs for employees, after getting the green light from the government this week.
Faster jabs – and the arrival of the first athletes in Japan for pre-game training – can help ease anti-Olympic sentiment. That was a possible interpretation of a Yomiuri Shimbun poll last weekend that saw the number of respondents calling for the games to be canceled drop 11 points to 48%, compared to a similar poll last month. The poll found 50% in favor of going ahead with the games.
Anger at the government’s insistence on moving the games forward, however, remained intense enough to put Suga on the defensive this week.
“It is my responsibility to protect the life and health of citizens,” he told lawmakers on Monday. “If we can’t, it’s only natural not to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.”
Suga insisted that the government is taking sufficient measures to ensure the safety of the athletes and the Japanese people. But the Yomiuri poll found that most Japanese are not convinced the measures will do the trick.
“I am personally against the Olympics, of course because of the safety issue,” said Junji Momose, a resident, stopping to speak at the busy Shimbashi train station in Tokyo. He worries that Japanese citizens are going out, despite the state of emergency in effect in much of the country, “because they think: ‘it is good to go out because the Olympics are taking place.’
Some experts worry about insufficient security measures
Some medical experts have focused on the Olympic game book outlining measures to protect athletes and officials. The latest version, released in April, includes a colorful cover illustration, showing two judo athletes grappling, without a mask.
“Graphics are more beautiful than any information they contain,” comments Lisa Brosseau, research consultant at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
In a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, she and her co-authors claim that “the IOC’s determination to host the Olympic Games is not based on the best scientific evidence”.
Gaming manuals, she argues, do not include best practices for hosting sporting events during a pandemic, such as not accommodating more than one athlete in each hotel room and using different approaches to manage different levels of risk. , ranging from indoor boxing matches to outdoor matches. sailing events.
Organizers should consider, “Can you minimize contact? Can you minimize the time? Can you minimize the number of people? Can you add ventilation, ”she said. “You have to have that kind of thoughtful conversation about risks and controls. And that’s not what I see in the textbooks at all.”
Dr Naoto Ueyama, who heads the Japanese Union of Physicians, is less concerned with the 15,000 or so athletes than with the tens of thousands of employees working behind the scenes.
“I’m mostly concerned about the volunteers,” he says. “I read that they only get two masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer to deal with the situation. It’s too awful.”
Organizers say about 10,000 of the 80,000 Olympic volunteers have already resigned, some due to health risks, others because of the sexist remarks by the former head of the games organization. The government says it plans to vaccinate the remaining volunteers.
Ueyama also notes that each sports venue is assigned a doctor to treat sick athletes or spectators, although it is not yet clear whether spectators will be allowed. But he says some of those doctors have also quit because they have to work in Japanese hospitals inundated with COVID patients.
The “Japanese government does not have the power to force the use of medical resources for the Olympics,” Ueyama argues, adding: “They did not get enough human resources, logistical support and money. I don’t think such a plan will go well. “
Ueyama also finds it hard to believe that everyone at the games will be able to abide by the rules of social distancing. He says, “I am concerned that it is difficult to completely block communication between the athletes.”
Organizers, for example, plan to distribute 160,000 condoms to athletes, but no face masks, which the athletes will have to bring themselves. Organizers stress that the distribution of prophylactics is meant to raise awareness about safe sex, and in light of the pandemic, athletes should take them home, rather than using them at games.
Chie Kobayashi in Tokyo contributed to this report.