Japan Has a Plan to Protect the Olympics From COVID-19. But Can It Protect Itself From the Olympics?


July 9, 2021

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has insisted that the Olympics, which begin in two weeks, will be “safe” from COVID-19. But a fresh surge of virus cases in Japan is casting doubt over just how safe the event will be—particularly for the Japanese people.

On Thursday, the Japanese government imposed a COVID-19 state of emergency on Tokyo just three weeks after lifting restrictions—as daily infections hit a two-month high. The order ensures the entire 2020 Tokyo Olympics will take place with the host city under emergency measures. Authorities also canceled an earlier plan to allow up to 10,000 Japanese spectators at events; athletes will compete in Tokyo without crowds.

Despite the latest COVID-19 countermeasures, and the safety precautions in place for the 60,000 athletes, coaches, journalists and others who will travel to Japan for the Games, health experts—who have been warning with increasing fervor for months about the risks—say that they’re concerned that the Olympics could be the catalyst for a major outbreak across the country.

“Medically speaking, I’m not very worried about the Games per se, particularly for athletes,” says Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease expert at Japan’s Kobe University. “But it might create the atmosphere to spread the disease all over Japan.”

Concern over the virus remaining inside Olympic bubbles

Olympic organizers have created a playbook of guidelines for those traveling to Japan for the Games, relying on frequent testing, masking wearing, social-distancing measures and requirements to stick to isolation bubbles as much as possible.

IOC president Thomas Bach has assuredathletes that they should travel to Tokyo with “full confidence” that the Games will be safe for them and that they will not jeopardize the health of the Japanese people. Bach was upbeat after landing in Tokyo Thursday, the same day the Japanese government announced the state of emergency. “What can I say? Finally we are here,” he said, at a virtual meeting which he attended from his hotel, while isolating. “I have been longing for this day for more than one year.”

Iwata says the safety measures in place and the fact that athletes are young and healthy—meaning they are less vulnerable to the worst effects of the disease—reduces the COVID-19 risk to people associated with the Games. About 80% of Olympics visitors are also expected to be vaccinated.

But only around 15% of Japan’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. And many of those are people over the age of 65, leaving younger adults susceptible to the virus.

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