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A Fresh Wave Of Coronavirus Infections Loom Over The Olympics


Japan's government faces a tough decision this week - whether or not to declare another state of emergency just ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. With the games now just over three weeks away, Tokyo is facing a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections. Still, the government is pressing ahead with the event, despite widespread opposition. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul with an update. Hi, Anthony.


CHANG: OK, so what are the government's options at this point?

KUHN: Well, one thing they can do is declare a full state of emergency in the hardest-hit areas, which include Tokyo, or they can continue with the partial or a quasi-state of emergency that's already in effect in Tokyo. And they will also have to decide what to do about spectators. Overseas spectators are already barred from the games. Domestic spectators are limited to half of the capacity of each venue, up to a maximum of 10,000 people. But they're considering now cutting that to a maximum of 5,000 people - also considering barring spectators from the opening and closing ceremonies and from night games. But I think it's pretty clear at this point that, one way or another, the games are going on. The torch race is already in progress. And the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, is arriving this week after his trip was postponed by the last wave of infections.

CHANG: Right. And competitors are already arriving in Japan. Some residents fear that those athletes may be carrying COVID. Do we know whether that is actually the case?

KUHN: Well, the latest case reported over the weekend is that a Serbian rowing team member tested positive on arrival in Japan. Last month, two Ugandan delegation members tested positive, and one of them tested positive after getting through border controls, which, of course, was not supposed to happen. And there are unconfirmed reports that there are more such cases. Right now the Olympic Village is not yet open, so most of these athletes are heading to training camps around the country. But a lot of those towns have had to cancel their camps because they need to save medical resources for their own residents.

CHANG: Well, now there's this fifth wave of COVID-19 infections in Japan just as the games are set to begin, which is absolutely horrible timing. I'm curious, Anthony, was this something that the government could have anticipated?

KUHN: Well, yes. Even before the fourth wave ended, experts were already predicting a fifth wave taking off right around the time of the Olympics. And, you know, the time between the loosening of social distancing restrictions and the start of a new wave just gets shorter and shorter each time as people get more and more fed up by social distancing requirements. Japan right now is still behind other nations in vaccinating its population. It's got about 10% fully vaccinated. And after getting off to a very slow start with inoculations in February, they really started ramping up vaccinations last month. And they hit the government's target of a million vaccinations a day. But now some cities are starting to run out of vaccines, causing them to have to cancel or suspend vaccination appointments.

CHANG: Oh, man. Well, now that it seems clear that the games will inevitably happen, that it's a foregone conclusion they will happen, has the debate in Japan about whether they should happen at all died down?

KUHN: Well, I think it's shifted a bit. People are not saying so much, should we have it or not? But they're talking more about how to protect athletes and residents. And I think the basic criticisms remain, which is that the population and the athletes are being sacrificed for corporate profits and for, you know, the government's prestige and interests. But I would say the debate remains intense and increasingly bitter and politicized, and it goes all the way to the top of the political and Olympic establishments in Japan. You've got, for example, the country's top medical adviser to the government on COVID saying that holding the games during a pandemic is just unthinkable. You have a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee, a board member and a former judo athlete named Kaori Yamaguchi, who's argued that games that do not have the public's support are basically meaningless. On the other side of the argument, interestingly, you have people like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who says that Japan has a responsibility to hold the games successfully because it's a democracy, and that implies that democracies cannot lose and let non-democracies win - non-democracies such as China, which will be hosting the Winter Games in less than seven months.

CHANG: That is NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul with an update on the Tokyo Olympics. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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