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Japan’s Olympic Torch Relay Under Threat From COVID-19 Rebound

A resurgence of cases in Tokyo and Osaka casts doubt on the idea of a coronavirus-proof Olympic Games.

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Japan’s Olympic Torch Relay Under Threat From COVID-19 Rebound

In this March 25, 2021, file photo, the celebration cauldron is seen lit on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan.

Credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP

With less than four months to the opening of the delayed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the long-awaited torch relay across Japan is at risk of being overshadowed by a rapid rise in coronavirus infections.

Late last month the Japanese government lifted its six-week COVID-19 state of emergency ahead of the launch of the nationwide Olympic torch relay starting in Fukushima prefecture. The torch relay is intended to symbolize progress and boost public excitement, and authorities hoped to convince the public that the capital is capable of staging the Games safely. However, Japan is bracing for an impending “fourth wave” of COVID-19 infections, and there are concerns about whether the tournament can be pulled off safely.

The number of coronavirus cases in Tokyo has exceeded 400 for four consecutive days. Tokyo registered 440 daily cases on Friday and 475 cases on Thursday, including the detection of virus variants in 69 people. Osaka is also showing signs of a rapid surge, confirming over 600 new daily cases for the first time since January 16. Osaka is expected to soon surpass its previous peak of 654 cases, reached on January 8.

The Olympic torch relay will cover all 47 prefectures over 121 days. It’s scheduled to reach Osaka on April 14, but authorities are planning to cancel the Osaka leg of the relay in order to prevent large crowds from gathering. The governor of Osaka confirmed an approaching fourth wave and a spike in community-acquired infections. Meanwhile, Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures declared their own states of emergency and regional towns hosting the relay are bracing for an imminent rise in infections. Local authorities announced the introduction of month-long coronavirus restrictions in Osaka and neighboring areas starting April 5, which include penalties on restaurants that do not shorten business hours.

The end of the state of emergency also coincides with Japan’s celebrated cherry blossom season and the approaching Golden Week holidays. Experts stress that popular cherry blossom viewing parties combined with the torch relay are a dangerous mix that could contribute to an explosion in COVID-19 cases.

In metropolitan Tokyo, there is an observable increase in foot traffic at major train stations and downtown areas. Parks are crowded with group picnics, and although mask culture is firmly entrenched in everyday life, masks are no match for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds.

Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko warned that the coronavirus crisis in Tokyo is yet to be brought under control and urged residents against complacency. In an effort to bring down infections, the municipal government is offering a daily subsidy of $360 to restaurants who shorten operating hours to close at 9 p.m. and stop serving alcohol by 8 p.m.

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide defended the end of the state of emergency, arguing that coronavirus fatigue had set in. When questioned by the opposition he said he had faith that strict countermeasures would be sufficient to prevent a resurgence.

As the state of emergency was drawing to a close, daily coronavirus infections in Tokyo and Osaka were already on the way up. Despite daily infections falling from 7,863 new cases on January 8, when the emergency declaration began, to 1,106 cases on March 21, there has been criticism that the state of emergency was lifted prematurely. The Japan Medical Association shares a similar position and stated that once the fourth wave is in full swing the government’s priority should be reintroducing a state of emergency.

It is unlikely that coronavirus infections can be completely prevented at a major international tournament such as the Olympics. While an official Olympic guidebook containing strict social distancing rules will be made available to all stakeholders, the absence of mandatory quarantines and vaccines could turn the Games into a virus hotspot. The Olympic village was designed in a way that encourages team mingling and with 60,000 athletes, coaches, media personnel, and staff from 200 countries gathering in Tokyo it is unclear how rigorously the coronavirus prevention rules can be monitored. This could lead to new mutant strains developing. Japan’s lagging vaccination roll out could also render vaccines ineffective against coronavirus variants.

The government is determined to host the Olympics but its “wait and see” approach is wearing thin among the general population. As public anxiety heightens over a sharp rebound in infections, a worst-case scenario would be Tokyo holding the Olympics under a state of emergency.