TOKYO – The vaccine rollout in Japan has been very slow with less than 1% vaccinated, causing concern about the postponed Tokyo Olympics that are scheduled to open in just over three months.
Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccine rollout, said last week that even if the Olympics go on, it’s possible the venues will be empty. This is partly because of the low vaccination rate.
Fans from abroad are already banned from the Olympics, and it's hard to imagine venues even half-filled with mostly unvaccinated fans. Many non-Japanese entering Japan are expected to be vaccinated.
Q: Are Japanese athletes being vaccinated?
A: This is a minefield for the organizers and the Japanese government. It will be very unpopular to push young, healthy athletes to the front of the vaccination line when almost no one else in Japan is vaccinated. Traffic on social media is strongly opposed.
Kono, organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto and Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa said the government so far has not issued any plans to vaccinate athletes.
However, Kono has said he is ready to deliver vaccines if Hashimoto and the government think they're needed.
“So far, there is no consultation or no action about Japanese athletes getting vaccine,” he said.
Marukawa said last week the government is considering testing all athletes daily. Previous plans had called for virus tests every four days. That change may show up when the second version of the “Playbook” is published this month.
The IOC has said vaccines are not required to participate. However, IOC President Thomas Bach has openly encouraged athletes to be vaccinated. Of course, that causes conflict when athletes are a priority ahead of vulnerable populations.
Q: Tokyo organizers have repeatedly said the Olympics will be safe and secure. Last week the British Medical Journal challenged this. Who is responsible if they are not?
A: IOC vice president John Coates, in an interview published online Sunday in the Japanese magazine “Number,” responded to the question.
Coates said, quoting the magazine: "The responsibility for the response to COVID-19 during, before and after the games lies with the Japanese government, and to a lesser extent with the Tokyo city government. Under an agreement with the government, the Tokyo government and Tokyo organizers, the IOC is doing its best to keep to a minimum the spread of infections, as well as the contact between the Japanese public (and the athletes). The IOC is responsible for that aspect.”
Q: When are we likely to know if there will be local fans in venues? And if so, what will be the capacity?
A: Hashimoto has said for weeks that a decision could come this month on capacity at the venues. Now she seems to be hedging.
“Within April I would like to set the basis direction,” she said Friday at her weekly press conference. “The final judgement time — this as well we need to monitor the situation of the pandemic and we need to remain flexible for that.”
Hashimoto did not raise Kono’s suggestion that there may be no fans, and did not challenge it.
It seems increasingly likely that local fans could be banned, too, as cases surge in Japan's two largest metropolitan areas — Tokyo and Osaka.
Ticket sales are worth about $800 million to local organizers. Any shortfall will have to be made up by Japanese government entities.
Q: Where do we stand with the torch relay, which started on March 25 from northeastern Fukushima prefecture?
A: It was run for two days last week in a largely empty city park in Osaka. The city’s mayor and prefectural governor forbade that it be run on public streets because of the rising cases in the region.
Organizers say the torch will be taken off public streets again on Wednesday in Matsuyama City, which is located in Ehime prefecture.
Local officials have also asked it be taken off public roads on May 1-2 in Japan’s southern island of Okinawa. It will be held there “in restricted areas without spectators,” organizers said in a statement.
Organizers said the relay on the smaller islands of Ishigaki, Miyakojima and Zamami will go on as scheduled.
Q: Is Bach headed back to Japan?
A: Local news reports say he will be in Hiroshima to meet the torch relay on May 17 or 18. He is expected to place flowers at the Peace Memorial Park in memory of the victims of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of the city. The A-Bomb Dome could also be a backdrop for Bach.
He is also expected to meet in Tokyo with Japanese government and Olympic officials.
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