Japan extends virus emergency with safe Olympics at stake

State of emergency has been extended in Tokyo and elsewhere as country faces calls to cancel games

A woman wearing a protective mask, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, walks past posters of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Tokyo, Japan, May 28, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japan extended a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas for 20 more days on Friday, with infections still not slowing as it prepares to host the Olympics in about 50 days.

Cases remain high and medical systems in Osaka – the hardest-hit area in western Japan – are still overburdened, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in announcing the decision.

“I am aware that many people are voicing concern about holding the Olympics and Paralympics,” he said.

“I take them seriously, and I will proceed with preparations for a safe and secure games.”

He said the next three weeks are “an extremely important time for us to achieve results” in a two-pronged battle to control infections while expanding vaccinations.

The current state of emergency in the capital and eight other metropolitan areas was to end next Monday, but hospitals in some areas are still overflowing with Covid-19 patients and serious cases have recently hit new highs.

The 20-day extension covers nine areas from Hokkaido in the north to Fukuoka in the south. A 10th area, the southern island prefecture of Okinawa, is already under emergency status through until June 20.

Olympic organisers must decide at about that time whether to allow any fans at all to the games – after overseas spectators were banned months ago. A plan to prioritise vaccinations for Japanese athletes is expected to begin around then, according to media reports.

The Olympics are scheduled to start July 23, following a one-year postponement due to the pandemic.

Worries about new variants and Japan's slow vaccination programme have triggered calls from the public, medical experts and even a sponsor to cancel the games.

Mr Suga’s public support ratings have plunged to about 30 per cent from around 70 per cent when he took office in September.

Experts have said that the variants are infecting more people, leaving them seriously ill and flooding hospitals in some areas.

Japan has lagged behind in vaccinations due to bureaucratic and planning missteps and shortages of medical staff.

Only 2.3 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and the current phase of focusing on older adults is not scheduled to finish before the games start.

Still, Mr Suga and his government are determined to host the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee has also said the games will go ahead, even if host city Tokyo is under emergency measures.

The government has been pushing to speed up inoculations and aims to administer up to one million a day, but some experts say that's an overly optimistic target.

Japan has reported about 730,000 coronavirus cases and more than 12,700 deaths.

A man wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks past a banner for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games on May 11, 2021, in Tokyo. The Japanese government was quick to respond on Tuesday, May 25, 2021 to U.S. travel warning for Americans against traveling to Japan and denied impact on Olympic participants, as the country determinedly prepare to host the postponed games in two months. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)