Olympics: Japan looks to extend COVID-19 states of emergency ahead of Games

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Japan is looking to extend a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas by about three weeks to June 20, a cabinet minister said on Friday, as the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of easing less than two months before the Summer Olympics open.

The state of emergency in the capital and eight other prefectures had been scheduled to end on May 31, but strains on the medical system remain severe. Japan’s southern island of Okinawa is already under a state of emergency set to end on June 20.

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Japan has seen a record number of COVID-19 patients in critical condition in recent days, even as the number of new infections has slowed.

“In Osaka and Tokyo, the flow of people is starting to creep up, and there are concerns that infections will rise,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who also heads the country’s coronavirus countermeasures, said at the start of a meeting with experts.

The experts later approved the government proposal and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to officially announce the extended state of emergency later on Friday.

Worries about variants of the novel coronavirus and a slow vaccination drive have prompted urgent calls from doctors, some high-profile business leaders and hundreds of thousands of citizens to cancel the Olympic Games, due to start on July 23.

Japanese officials, Olympics organizers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have said the Games would go ahead under strict virus-prevention measures. IOC Vice President John Coates, who oversees the preparations, said last week the Games were on whether or not the host city, Tokyo, is under an emergency state at the time.

Japan has recorded about 727,000 coronavirus infections and 12,597 deaths so far. About 6 percent of its population has been vaccinated, according to Reuters data, the lowest among the world’s larger, rich countries.

Comments by IOC officials appearing to dismiss Japanese concerns have sparked outrage on social media, including IOC President Thomas Bach telling an International Athletes Forum on Thursday: “Come with full confidence to Tokyo and get ready”.

“I want to say ‘shut up’,” said one Twitter user. “Let’s beat up on the IOC, which denigrates Japan, and halt these crazy Olympics.”

Polls show a majority of Japanese want the Games, postponed last year due to COVID-19, either canceled or put off again.

That is a worry for Suga, whose support has slid over his handling of the response to COVID-19 and who faces a general election and a ruling party leadership race later this year.

But cancellation would carry its own political risk for the premier, some ruling party lawmakers said.

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“The demerits would outweigh the merits,” Liberal Democratic Party MP Hajime Funada told Reuters. “It would give the impression that Japan is in such dire straits in cannot hold the Games.”

In a joint statement after a summit on Thursday, the European Union and Japan backed Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympic Games this year.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union had authorized the export to Japan of more than 100 million vaccine doses, enough to inoculate about 40 percent of the population. “We have of course said we are looking forward to the Olympics Games,” she told a news conference.

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