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The Tokyo Olympics are turning into a mess

The effects of a slow Covid response are being felt.

OLY-2020-2021-TOKYO Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday the Japanese government announced it would be imposing a state of emergency in Tokyo during the Olympic games — a move which could lead to spectators being barred from watching events.

The announcement comes just two weeks before the opening ceremony, which is set to commence on July 23. International fans were already barred from watching the games in person, but these new stricter rules could lead to venues being empty during competition. The new measures were announced by national broadcaster NHK, and are expected to last one month — which would span the entire length of the games.

Japan had mostly beat Covid, but got complacent

One of the first countries to register a Covid infection, Japan came in contact with the virus on January 16 of 2020. The nation quickly responded to the pandemic, establishing a task force within weeks — then strictly quarantining in early February.

Japan’s rapid response worked. Infection rates dropped, and the nation effectively flattened its curve to the point that hospitals never became over-burdened with cases. As a result, while the U.S. was averaging over 150,000 cases a day from October to December of 2020, Japan’s numbers topped out averaging 3,000 cases a day.

This successful slow of the spread became a problem. The low infection rate created a pervasive belief that put the economy over public health, which led to an approach where many Japanese officials believed the country should learn to “live with Covid,” rather than stop it all together. In turn, there was very little motivation from public health officials to roll out vaccination efforts.

As recently as April just 1 percent of the population had received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, compared to 40 percent in the USA. This slow vaccine rollout coincided with a spike in cases that was alarming public health officials. In January The Washington Post wrote about Japan’s slack Covid response, outlining six months ago that unless there was a dramatic change in dealing with the virus that Japan could be in trouble, especially considering the Olympics loomed on the horizon.

“But medical experts are expressing concern that the measures will be too little, too late to quickly contain the virus — meaning they will have to remain in place for longer. Adding to the worry, the Olympics are scheduled to open in Tokyo in under 200 days.”

Japan saw a major Covid spike in January and February, following by a lull, then another peak mid-May. The most recent spike saw the country register an average of 6,480 new cases per day — the majority of which in Tokyo. By comparison, Mexico, the closest country in population size to Japan, but with a much broader vaccination response, registered 2,321 cases.

This will be Tokyo’s fourth Covid emergency

In an effort to prepare the city for the games Tokyo has undergone several Covid-based states of emergency, most recently a three week series of restrictions that ran from May 28 until June 20. Instead of opting for a full and complete lockdown, Japan has taken a half-hearted approach to locking Tokyo down, while not increasing vaccination rates significantly enough to stop the spread.

Now, a fourth state of emergency has been issued — after two weeks of people returning to life as normal in the city. It’s unclear what effect this most recent state of emergency will do, especially considering the city will return to normal shortly after the Olympics.

What does this mean for the games?

At this point the Olympics are an unstoppable freight train that are being held out of financial motivation, more than sound thinking. The justification for delaying the games from 2020 to 2021 was ensuring the world was better prepared with a vaccination before taking part in a global sporting event.

However, Japan’s slow response to vaccinate its citizens turned the games on its head. The concern a year ago was international athletes infecting locals, now Japan has a larger Covid outbreak than it did in July of 2020. The saving grace is that athletes participating in the games will be vaccinated.

The games will be long over before a detailed look in Japan’s lack of Covid preparedness is evaluated — but one thing is clear: These Olympic games are quickly turning into a mess, and a response which was once in the hands of the government has now spiraled out of control.