Surge in COVID-19 cases puts Tokyo Games in doubt

As Japan expands state of emergency, calls grow to cancel Games. Japan has repeatedly insisted it will hold the Games despite opinion polls showing a majority of respondents want them postponed again or cancelled.


Japan expanded a state of emergency declared for the Tokyo area last week to seven more prefectures on Wednesday amid a steady rise in COVID-19 cases, while a survey by public broadcaster NHK showed most people want to cancel or delay the Summer Olympics.

The move comes after the governors of Osaka, Kyoto and other hard-hit prefectures requested the government announce the emergency, which gives local authorities the legal basis to place restrictions on residents’ movements and businesses.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been wary about taking measures that would hamper economic activity, while he has put on a brave face against the mounting challenges of hosting the delayed Olympics in Tokyo this year.

Earlier in the day it was reported that Japan’s government is continuing with preparations to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer as planned, following a postponement because of the coronavirus pandemic, chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato said on Wednesday.

Japan has repeatedly insisted it will hold the Games despite opinion polls showing a majority of respondents want them postponed again or cancelled.

“Right now we’re working as one with everybody involved in organising the Games to host them successfully,” Kato told a regular news conference.

The comments come as local media reported Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US philanthropist Bill Gates had spoken about the Olympic Games on Tuesday in a call arranged by Suntory Holdings Ltd CEO Takeshi Niinami.

Suga told Gates the Games were “very important” and would “definitely” go ahead, Kyodo news agency quoted Niinami as saying.

But Kato said Suga did not make that comment to Gates.

“I’ve checked and as far as I know, that expression was not used,” Kato said.

Japan’s coronavirus cases topped 300,000 on Wednesday, while the death toll reached 4,187, public broadcaster NHK said.

As infections hover at record levels, straining the country’s medical system, opinion polls have shown a public increasingly opposed to holding the Summer Games and growing frustration with Suga.

In a weekend survey by NHK, just 16% of respondents said the Games should go ahead — down 11 percentage points from the previous poll last month — while a combined 77% thought they should be cancelled or postponed. The Games are set for July 23 to August 8.

Even Takeshi Niinami, CEO of beverage giant Suntory Holdings and an economic adviser to Suga, told Reuters he was unsure whether the Olympics could be held as planned, and that a decision will likely be made by end-March.

Suga announced the expanded state of emergency to include Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Aichi, Gifu and Tochigi prefectures from Thursday at a task force meeting. He will hold a news conference 7 p.m. (1000 GMT).

The latest emergency declaration covering 55% of Japan’s population of 126 million is set to last through February 7 and is much narrower in scope than the first one last spring. It focuses on combating transmission in bars and restaurants, while urging people to stay home as much as possible.

The government will also suspend an entry-ban exemption for business travellers from 11 previously designated countries and regions during the state of emergency.

Suga has been criticised for what many observers have said was a slow and confusing response to the pandemic. That is a sharp reversal from the strong support he enjoyed at the start of his tenure, when he was seen as a “man of the people” who could push through reforms.

Among the most controversial moves has been a scheme that subsidised local tourism, encouraging millions to travel domestically. That was put on hold late last year.

Political analyst Atsuo Ito said he saw two major problems with Suga’s response to the pandemic: that it was incremental and slow, and that he was a poor communicator despite having been the top government spokesman in his previous role as chief cabinet secretary.

“He has almost no skill at messaging. Even at press conferences he’s looking down and reading notes. That doesn’t invite trust from citizens … The result is that his support ratings are falling,” Ito said.

Suga’s approval rate fell below those who disapproved for the first time in an NHK poll since he took office in September — by 40% to 41%.

The poll also showed 88% think February 7 is too early to lift the state of emergency — a view shared by many experts.

“It’s very unlikely we’ll see cases go down after just a month,” said Yoshihito Niki, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Showa University Hospital.

“Japan has been called a success story and there’s been discussion about the so-called Factor X –something that makes the Japanese more resistant to the virus — but that’s a complete fantasy,” Niki said.

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