Japan’s joyless Olympics may be the saddest Games of all

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Everything has the makings of an Olympic Games like no other.

Charging

There will be no fans from abroad, and probably not many nationals. If people are allowed into stadiums, they will be asked not to cheer or shout, not to eat snacks or drink alcohol, and to go straight home afterward.

Foreign journalists will be told to avoid public transportation and stay away from the many wonderful restaurants in Tokyo.

Fun is also largely off the athletes’ agenda. They will be confined to the Olympic Village and training grounds, and asked to return home immediately after the event ends.

The sponsors, who have paid tens of millions of dollars each to support the Olympics, will not be entertaining overseas customers, and perhaps not even the Japanese. Many are simmering silently.

A vaccination campaign in Japan has suddenly come to life in recent weeks. Mass vaccination centers have finally opened in Tokyo and Osaka, the military and private sector are getting involved, and now more than 650,000 injections are given on most days.

Members of the Australian softball team arrive in Tokyo.Credit:AP

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged Wednesday to vaccinate everyone in October or November. But while most people over the age of 65 will have had two doses of the vaccine by the time the Games begin, most people under the age of 65 will not be covered at all.

Japan has delivered a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine to about 10 percent of its population, one of the slowest among wealthy industrialized nations.

Japan has been hit less hard than many Western nations by the pandemic, but it has still suffered great economic damage and more than 13,600 deaths, a high total for East Asia.

Still, the government maintained the usual way of doing things: procedural, methodical and, above all, avoiding risks, experts said.

There is a proverb in Japan that says that people here are so cautious that they even hit a stone bridge before crossing it, to test their strength. But, joke goes, so many people hit the bridge so much that they actually break it.

“The Japanese don’t want to fail, and that’s why they fail,” Ishii said.

Japan has a history of vaccinating vaccines among the general public, thanks to several past concerns about vaccine safety. But the skepticism is no greater than that of France, which has launched the vaccine much faster.

Japan also requires that vaccines be tested within the country before being approved, and the Health Ministry ignored widespread warnings that applying this rule to vaccines would dangerously delay the program.

Japan insisted on trials with fewer than 200 participants, delaying approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine until February and Moderna until May, compared to December 2020 for both vaccines in the United States.

Charging

Kentaro Iwata, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Kobe, calls it an example of what is known here as “yattafuri,” showing that you are doing something without actually doing anything: a cursory approach that values ​​procedure over results.

In late April, Prime Minister Suga acknowledged that the national judgment requirement is not appropriate in an emergency and should be dropped in the future.

“Even though we are in a state of crisis, we continue to use the same rules to approve vaccines that we do in normal times,” Vaccine Minister Taro Kono said in a May television interview, clearly frustrated by his own inability to change the system.

One of the biggest problems has been a shortage of staff to administer the vaccines, and doctors are already struggling to cope with the pandemic.

Makito Yaegashi, chief of general medicine at Kameda Medical Center, which was trained and practiced in the United States, said it was “super obvious” that Japan should tap into its 310,000 pharmacists to administer vaccines, as the United States and 25 other countries have done. . Yaegashi organized an online petition that attracted more than 24,000 signatures and submitted it to Vaccine Minister Kono last month.

Authorities rejected the proposal to train pharmacists to perform the simple procedure.

“There is extreme aversion to risk,” Yaegashi said. “If there is a risk, we tend to avoid it, whereas in fact we should weigh the risk against the benefit and then decide what to do.”

Public opposition to holding the Games appears to have eased in recent weeks as control of the pandemic has eased and the pace of vaccinations accelerated.

However, doctors and medical associations have repeatedly called for the Olympics to be postponed or canceled.

The government’s top medical adviser, Shigeru Omi, even joined the chorus last week, arguing that it was “abnormal” to hold the games during a pandemic, an extraordinary intervention by a man who tends to defend government policy in public.

“To keep arguing that the games are safe means nothing,” Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology who has also played a prominent role in the government’s complicit response, said in an interview.

“We have to do a proper risk assessment,” he said, echoing a call made in the New England Journal of Medicine. “They should have started this process a year ago.”

At least 10,000 of the 80,000 Olympic volunteers have already withdrawn, and organizers finally promised this week to seek vaccines for those who remain.

Kaori Yamaguchi, a member of the executive board of the Japanese Olympic Committee, said it was “really a shame” that the government’s vaccination effort did not start two months earlier, arguing that Japan had been “cornered” to go ahead with the Games despite of widespread misgivings.

“What will these Olympic Games be for and for whom? The Games have already lost their meaning and are being held just for their sake, ”he wrote in an opinion piece for Kyodo News. “If we continue like this, even if the Olympics stir up our emotions, we will be left with a bitter aftertaste.”

The Washington Post

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