More than two months after it began rolling out vaccines, Japan is still lagging behind the rest of the developed world, raising questions about the wisdom of holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo in less than three months from now. But Prime Minister Suga and the Tokyo 2020 organizers continue to insist that the progress of domestic vaccinations is unrelated to what they believe will be ‘safe’ Games. However, a majority of the Japanese do not like this.
Barely 1.3 percent of the Japanese population has received at least one of the two doses, compared to 40 percent in the US, 49 percent in the UK, and 23 percent in our country. Neighboring South Korea, which has also been criticized for slow vaccination, has vaccinated more than 4 percent of its population.
Japan’s Ministry of Health has only approved the Pfizer vaccine so far, leaving the country dependent on imports from the EU until the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines get the green light, possibly next month.
The problem has been a long time coming. Recent reports cast doubt on claims that delivery problems are behind the delay. On Monday, Bloomberg said the EU had exported 52.3 million doses to Japan between January 30 and April 19.
Soft lockdowns no longer work
Japan chose to vaccinate its population months after the US and some European countries, starting in mid-February with injections for 4.8 million health workers, most of whom have yet to be vaccinated. Vaccinations for 36 million people aged 65 and over began in mid-April, with the 60-64 age group, nurses and those with pre-existing conditions expected to follow, possibly by… the end of July. Those between the ages of 16-59 have yet to be told when they qualify.
After the initial success in preventing the catastrophic caseloads and death toll compared to other countries, Japan continued to rely on preventive measures, including widespread mask wearing and avoiding confined spaces, crowded places and close contacts.
The ‘soft lockdowns’ announced last April and earlier this year depended on bars and restaurants adhering to voluntary restrictions on opening hours and responding to requests to avoid non-essential outings . Japan, the official reasoning went, had thus gained itself time to wait to vaccinate and observe the progress of vaccinations in other countries.
From bad to worse
The Japanese government says it is proceeding with caution because of the need to convince a skeptical public about the safety of vaccines. She retired to her shell after a number of incidents involving vaccines over the decades. Rather than defending vaccine safety, the government decided not to want to be blamed for possible side effects (and to expose itself to damages). However, this reluctance to take responsibility is starting to bother the Japanese. A poll by the Kyodo News Agency this month found that more than 60 percent of people were dissatisfied with the progress of the vaccinations, while more than 90 percent were concerned about a new wave of infections.
Rightly so, it turns out. Infections caused by new variants have risen sharply. Quasi-emergency measures failed to stop the rise, with cumulative infections now over half a million and a death toll of nearly 10,000 – one of the worst in Asia. On Sunday, a state of emergency was declared for the third time in Tokyo, Osaka and two other virus hotspot regions. This implies, among other things, the closure of companies and heavy fines for non-compliance with the measures.
Acceleration on the way, but too late for Tokyo 2020
By delaying vaccinations, Japan has left itself vulnerable to new outbreaks of variants, with less than 90 days to go to the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Experts are aware that it is now too late to see the spread of to stop variants with vaccines.
Major vaccination centers will open in Tokyo and Osaka in the coming weeks in an effort to speed up immunization. Tokyo officials insist the rollout is about to accelerate. But the slow rate of immunization among health workers doesn’t bode well for the rest of the population. Most have not yet received their first shot and in some areas unvaccinated medical staff are reluctant to give injections to elderly residents.
The rollout is now too far behind to have any impact on the Olympics, as much of Japan’s population is unlikely to be protected by the time tens of thousands of athletes, media, officials and other Games-related personnel arrive in Tokyo before the opening ceremony in July.
Almost 7 out of 10 Japanese do not like Playing this summer
Four leading Japanese health experts have already called for the Games to be “urgently reconsidered”. “The entire global community recognizes the need to contain the pandemic and save lives,” they wrote. “Keeping Tokyo 2020 for domestic, political and economic purposes – and ignoring scientific and moral imperatives – contradicts Japan’s commitment to global health and human security. We need to rethink this summer’s Games and instead work together internationally to agree on a set of global and domestic conditions under which international multi-sport events can be held in the coming years. ”
But Prime Minister Suga and the Tokyo 2020 organizers continue to insist that the progress of domestic vaccinations is unrelated to what they believe will be ‘safe’ Games. Yet that does not say the last word. Toshihiro Nikai, a senior member of Japan’s ruling party, has said canceling the Tokyo Olympics “remains an option”. While Nikai has not called for the Games to be canceled, his comments are at odds with the united front of the Japanese government, the Tokyo 2020 organizers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Public opinion in the host country is, incidentally, strongly opposed to the Games. A recent poll showing that 39.2 of the Japanese think they should be canceled tout court, and a further 32.8 percent say they should be postponed – something the IOC says is unfeasible.