Surge in Covid-19 cases in Tokyo, less than a month out from Olympics

A rise in daily cases of the coronavirus in Tokyo has triggered fears of a possible fifth wave of infections, less than a month before the city is due to host the Olympics.

Tokyo reported 317 infections on Monday – an increase of 81 from the same day last week and the ninth week-on-week rise in a row.

The rise in cases, coupled with evidence that the more transmissible Delta variant is spreading, raises the likelihood that Tokyo will still be subject to emergency measures in some form when the Olympics open on 23 July.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister overseeing Japan’s pandemic response, this week said the government would “not hesitate” to call a new state of emergency if necessary.

“The number of new infections in the capital and other areas in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area is clearly trending upward,” he said in an interview with the public broadcaster NHK.

The perils of holding an event on the scale of the Olympics during a pandemic were underlined this month when two members of the Ugandan team tested positive for Covid-19 – the second while staying in the town hosting their training camp. Both had the delta variant of virus, local media reported.

In response, the chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, said Japan would tighten quarantine requirements for athletes and other participants from areas where the delta strain has been detected.

The president of the Japan Olympic Committee, Yasuhiro Yamashita, conceded that cases would emerge in connection with the Games.

“No matter what measures you take, infected people will come in … it is unavoidable,” Yamashita said. “Strict border controls at airports are extremely important.”

Signs that the virus is rebounding emerged just days after the government lifted a state of emergency in Tokyo and nine other regions, despite evidence that it had failed to dramatically reduce infections.

The capital is now subject to relaxed “quasi” emergency measures, with bars and restaurants asked to stop serving alcohol at 7 pm and close an hour later.

Japan has avoided a catastrophic Covid-19 outbreak, but its initially slow vaccine rollout, coupled with restrictions on the government’s ability to enforce business closures, have led to repeated rebounds after emergency measures are lifted or relaxed.

The country has reported almost 800,000 cases since the start of the pandemic and 14,700 deaths – one of the highest tolls in the region.

John Coates, a senior member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sparked anger in Japan last month when he said the Olympics would go ahead even if Tokyo was under a state of emergency.

“All the measures we are undertaking will ensure a safe Games regardless of whether there is a state of emergency or not,” Coates, an IOC vice-president who is in charge of preparations, said after a virtual meeting with organisers.

“Provided that we can protect the Japanese public, the most important thing is giving athletes a chance to compete.”

Recent surveys indicate high levels of public opposition in the host city. In a poll of Tokyo residents by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, 38% of respondents wanted the Games to go ahead as planned, while 27% called for a further delay and 33% said they should be cancelled.

A poll by the Mainichi Shimbun found that 58% opposed holding the event this summer, with 30% in favour.

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