Japan’s government will decide Friday whether to extend a state of emergency across much of the country, nearly two months before the planned start of the delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The country reintroduced emergency measures in April as it grappled with a fourth wave of coronavirus cases – one that has yet to diminish.
Japan’s seven-day average for new cases currently stands at around 4,500, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, only around 2% of the country’s 126 million population has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to figures compiled by CNN.
On Monday, the United States advised citizens against traveling to Japan, due to the ongoing outbreak.
The governors of Tokyo and Osaka have already asked the central government to extend the current state of emergency, due to expire on May 31. According to Japanese media, the measures could be extended to June 20. The opening day for the Tokyo 2020 Games – postponed last year due to the pandemic – is July 23.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said Tuesday that while Covid-19 cases are on the decline for the prefecture, the medical system is strained with severe cases. “If we have another expansion of infection, we cannot deal with it anymore,” he said. “Before it becomes too late, I have decided to (request to) extend the state of emergency.”
Under the current measures, residents are asked to avoid nonessential outings, work from home and stick to mask-wearing, though such guidance is not mandatory. Large commercial spaces like shopping malls are barred from operating, except to provide essential items and services. Establishments that serve alcohol are advised to shut completely and dry establishments asked to close from 8 p.m., or face a fine.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will meet with experts Friday to discuss the extension over Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, and five other prefectures. The southern island prefecture of Okinawa will already be under a state of emergency until June 20.
Both local and international Olympic officials have repeatedly insisted the Games will go ahead despite the situation on the ground with the pandemic, pointing to protections put in place at venues and the Olympic Village to protect athletes and staff.
Canceling the Olympics could be hugely costly for both Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with the loss of broadcasting revenues in particular a major blow.
But pressure to do so has been building as the Games grow ever nearer. On Thursday, Japan’s doctors’ union reaffirmed demands to call off the competition, warning it could cause the spread of mutant strains of the virus.
“There’s a possibility that the Indian and South African strains could be spread more,” union chairman Naoto Ueyama warned at a news conference in Tokyo.
Ueyama urged the international community to help sound the alarm about the potential danger of the Olympics and to mobilize public opinion against the event. He criticized the IOC’s latest pledge to hold the Games even while Japan is under a state of emergency, saying it had raised the ire of medical staff and many people in the country.
“The whole world needs to come together to fight Covid-19; however, some are turning their backs against this struggle, and there’s a risk that the Tokyo Olympics will be an obstacle in overcoming Covid-19,” Ueyama said.
Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said Wednesday nine hospitals would be set aside for Olympics-related staff. However, Ueyama warned of hospitals being overburdened in July and August due to the increase in patients typically brought in for heatstroke during Japan’s summer.
The doctor also criticized Japan’s vaccine rollout as being “embarrassingly slow.” He added that even if 1 million people are vaccinated daily, it could take six months to inoculate the whole population.
“The Japanese government last year pledged to hold the Olympics as a sign of conquering Covid-19, but that was a naive illusion,” Ueyama said.
Journalists Chie Kobayashi and Mai Nishiyama reported from Tokyo and CNN’s Emiko Jozuka reported from Hong Kong.