In a week, the Olympic Games – now anachronistically called 2020 – will finally begin.
It’s a time for which Japan has been preparing for a long time – since March last year, when the Tokyo Games were delayed due to the pandemic; since 2016, when the then Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, took the baton in Rio de Janeiro in a Super Mario costume and also since 2013, when the country first won its competitive offer.
Still, the country is heading to the Olympics with a sense of resignation and a reckoning over how its leaders handled a pandemic that is ruining a key moment for national pride. Many Japanese think less about racing and gold medals than they do about the fact that Tokyo is in a fourth state of emergency. Coronavirus infections spiked again and supply problems stalled vaccination.
Much has changed since May 2020, when Abe touted the “Japanese model” of fighting COVID-19 as a success. Despite the fact that the original planned date for the Olympic Games had long since passed – a clock counts the days in the center of Tokyo – the country struggles to defend its decisions, making last-minute revisions and moving forward with a moderate Games without spectators. , with heavy restrictions for visiting athletes and their own citizens.
The reasons behind Japan’s less-than-ideal disposition to host these pandemic Olympics may lie in the nation’s early success in curbing the virus and in the voluntary adherence of its citizens to government-recommended precautions.
“Japan began the COVID experience with pleasure, there is no doubt about that,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “People were forced to take responsibility for protecting themselves and containing the virus. Now, they think that enough is enough ”.
Japan baffled observers early in the pandemic by keeping infections and deaths low despite running far fewer tests than other countries, imposing only mild restrictions and doing little to add hospital beds.
Japanese leaders justified the limited testing and moderate measures, as a “cluster-based” approach and focused on curbing super-spreading events, rather than trying to contain community broadcasting. It was a strategy that a member of the government later described as “interim measures … [que] turned out well, finally, ”according to the report by an independent commission that assessed Japan’s response to COVID-19.
Abe was quick to declare the triumph of the Japanese model. He said the virus had been controlled “in a characteristically Japanese way,” which allowed life to move on without an economic lockdown. By the summer, the government even promoted a national tourism campaign to boost the ailing travel industry.
“Early containment of the pandemic in its first wave […] it somehow tempered the sense of urgency to introduce stronger policy measures and tools in preparation for a more severe spread, ”said Akihisa Shiozaki, a Tokyo-based lawyer who worked on the independent commission’s investigation.
In this year’s British Medical Journal, public health researchers wrote that Japan did not reflect on the shortcomings of its early response, and “instead stuck to notions of exceptionalism.”
That left Japan ill-prepared when a third wave of cases overwhelmed the country and its medical institutions earlier this year, followed by a fourth wave in May, with the Olympics just around the corner. Thousands of COVID-19 patients who needed hospital beds did not have them. More than three-quarters of Japan’s 15,000 deaths from COVID-19 occurred in 2021. The nation’s daily infections are at around 2,300 and are trending upward, well below the January peak of nearly 8,000, but the Cases in Tokyo record a maximum of six months.
At the same time, the launch of the vaccine got off to a painstakingly slow start. Japan needed additional clinical trials and relied on local municipalities, many of which lacked the capacity to distribute doses quickly. This week, parts of Tokyo and other regions had to suspend vaccination appointments due to a bottleneck in shifts.
When the opening ceremony is a week away, and the highly infectious Delta variant is feared to create further danger, less than a third of the 125 million Japanese have at least one dose of vaccine, and less than 20% are fully inoculated.
“The absent and erratic political leadership is to blame for a great failure of the Japanese government, which had a lot to lose by not getting vaccinated before the Olympics,” said the teacher.
Japan’s initial performance in fighting COVID-19, he added, was due in large part to the efforts of individual citizens to be vigilant and cautious, and that the government took undue credit for itself. Now that patience is dangerously wearing thin and breeds resentment among those who believe they are once again being asked to hold back for the sake of the Olympics, Nakano added. “Most of the Japanese feel that they are being exploited; your patience and perseverance will not make it to the Olympics. They prefer to go to school, or meet their grandparents; all that is at risk due to the Olympic Games ”, he affirmed.
The Japanese government also has a history of being cautious when it comes to pharmaceutical or vaccine approvals, due to its past scandals, Shiozaki added. For example, it suspended its recommendation for the widely used human papillomavirus vaccine after reports of adverse effects in 2013, and it has yet to reverse that decision.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was not particularly helpful in winning over the Japanese public. Earlier this week, the entity’s president, Thomas Bach, vowed to make the Games safe for the “Chinese people,” before swiftly correcting himself in his first public appearance in Tokyo. On the day of your arrival, the hashtag “Bach, go home” was trending on Twitter.
Bach avoided questions from the Japanese media about what would happen in the event of a drastic increase in infection during the Olympics, saying only that cancellation “was not an option.”
As athletes and their support staff began to arrive in greater numbers this week, teams began to experience friction with infections that could be an indication of things to come. The Russian women’s and South African men’s rugby teams had to isolate themselves after coming into contact with those who had tested positive for the virus.
For Kazuto Suzuki, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo, Abe’s Super Mario costume stunt had encapsulated Japan’s hope that the Olympics would be a blatant celebration of all the country had to offer on stage. world. “This time, Japan will be more Japanese at these Olympics, trying to be the best in the nation,” he emphasized. Now, in the face of anxiety about what is happening, “That kind of thing no longer exists.”
The best scenario the Japanese public can hope for would be an uneventful Games that end the country – and the world – not much worse than it is, Suzuki said. That it is only an Olympic aspiration.
“It is a very functional and simplistic way. No more commercialism, no more nationalism, ”he added. “To be able to see it on television like any other Olympiad that happens in any other country.”
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