While Japan is yet to fully contain the fourth wave of COVID-19 infection that began in April 2021 and is still under a national emergency, the government's decision to go ahead with the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Games in July has stirred strong protests. The controversy around the Olympics and developments through the summer will have serious implications not only from the perspective of public safety but also for the future of Japanese politics, as two elections are scheduled after the games. While Prime Minister (PM) Suga promises to have a 'safe and secure' Olympics, it is easier said than done given the mounting challenge he has to face in the run-up to the Olympics.
Although Japan has fared well in its fight against COVID-19 compared to advanced countries in the West, it has struggled to contain the fourth wave of infections that began in April. As of June 20, Japan reported a total of 777,745 positive cases and 14,418 deaths. Compared to the last three waves, the fourth one has been the most damaging, with cases peaking over 7000 in a day in the first week of May. Approximately 80 per cent of the total fatality due to COVID-19 has occurred in the past four months. A surge in cases in May has also witnessed exhaustion of the health system, especially in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
In response to the fourth wave of the pandemic, on April 23, PM Yoshihide Suga declared a national emergency till the end of May, which has been extended to the third week of June. This is the third time Japan has declared an emergency since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020. The first was in April 2020, and the second emergency was declared in January 2021. Unlike the draconian measures followed in many countries, the Japanese emergency falls short of a full lockdown. It has aimed to reduce people's mobility by 70 per cent by requesting them to stay at home and limit business hours. However, strict restrictions are being applied to places selling alcohol or offering entertainment services by asking them to close down. The restrictions, though, carry fines but primarily rely on voluntary compliance. While the central government is responsible for declaring an emergency, its implementation is primarily at the discretion of prefecture governors.
Japan: Number of New COVID-19 Cases per Day
A month after the declaration of the third emergency, the situation appeared to be brought under control. The daily number of newly confirmed COVID-19 infections across Japan came to 1500 as of June 20. For the same day in Tokyo, 376 new cases were reported, while Osaka marked 106 cases. The number of critically ill patients admitted to the hospital has also come down substantially in both cities.
Cumulative Confirmed Cases of COVID in Comparison-Cumulative Cases (per 1000K)
Japan's Delayed Vaccination
Amid the fourth wave, the Japanese government has come under criticism for its response to the pandemic, particularly the slow rolling out of COVID-19 vaccination. Recent media surveys have found that close to three-quarters of the public is unhappy about the government's vaccination programme.Japan launched its vaccination in mid-February, about two months behind Europe and the United States, first for front-line health workers and then expanded to those aged 65 and older in April. As of June 21, Japan fully vaccinated 9.2 million citizens, 7.3 per cent of the country's 126 million people eligible for vaccination (above 18 years of age), and 22.4 million citizens received a single shot, about 17.8 per cent. The Japanese government aims to inoculate its elderly population (65 plus) by the end of July. The elderly population in Japan is about 36.17 million, accounting for 28.7 per cent of the nation's total population.
There are several reasons for Japan's vaccination delay. Since there has been no success in developing a domestic vaccine, Japan is dependent on the international market for its vaccine supply. Though Japan had already made deals with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Novavax to cover its entire population, delays in international vaccine production and logistic disruptions have impacted Tokyo's vaccination plan. Further, unlike many countries, Japan did not fast track the vaccine approval process; it stuck to its peacetime regulatory approach. For instance, the Pfizer vaccine was approved and began use in Britain and the US; Tokyo conducted an additional clinical trial at home before the regulators approved it in mid-February. Despite receiving AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccine supplies in April, Japanese drug regulators approved their use only in the third week of May. Another problem causing the delay is the shortage of staff to administer the vaccine. The Japanese law allows only registered doctors and nurses to do the job. Officials are now exploring the possibility of letting pharmacists administer the vaccine. While many structural factors contributed to the Japanese vaccination programme's delay, critics argue these factors could have been addressed better if the Japanese government were to act more proactively, taking the pandemic more seriously.
Since May, the Japanese government has begun doubling down on its efforts to accelerate the vaccination programme. In this regard, the government built two massive inoculation centres in Tokyo and Osaka and deployed Self Defense Forces to run these centres. It also decided to start vaccination at workplaces and universities by the end of June. Tokyo also announced a long-term approach to vaccine development to facilitate domestic research and production to deal with the COVID-19 virus and other pandemics and provide fast-tracking of vaccine approvals to deal with emergencies.
Even before the fourth wave of the pandemic hit Japan, there were concerns about the safety in holding the Olympics in July. Witnessing the havoc caused by the recent surge to health infrastructure and limited progress on the vaccination front have heightened anti-Olympics sentiments in Japan. In recent public polls, more than 70 per cent of Japanese respondents demanded that the Olympics be postponed or cancelled. In a move that strengthened the voice to the critics, Tokyo Medical Practitioners' Association appealed to PM Suga to cancel the Olympics taking cognisance of the burden that the event can cause to the already stretched medical infrastructure. They also warned that the Olympics could lead to super spreader events in Japan and potentially create a new strain of COVID-19.
While the anti-Olympics sentiment is mounting, the organisers -International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government insist that the event can be organised safely and ignored the demand for cancellation or another postponement.The IOC has been adamant that the Tokyo Olympics will be held as scheduled. Strong statements from IOC senior officials have further irked the critics to argue that the organisers are least concerned about public safety. For instance, a senior official of IOC stated that the games could go ahead even if Tokyo is under a state of emergency because of the COVID-19 virus.
On the other hand, PM Suga though, appearing confident in holding 'safe and secure' games, has been measured in his response when he said that the government would "not put the Olympics first" - but added that ultimately, the decision would lie with the IOC. The contract between IOC and Tokyo metropolitan government gives the IOC the exclusive right to cancel the games. It also means that in a situation where the Japanese governments were to cancel the Olympics unilaterally, the IOC can seek damages in court.
To ensure the safety of the games, the organisers have scaled down the games and banned international spectators. A call on allowing the Japanese audience will be taken towards the end of June. They also plan to create safety bubbles that separate the participants from the locals. Though vaccination will not be mandatory for the participants, IOC claimed that 80% of participants would be vaccinated at the beginning of the games.
Despite the organisers' assurances about the safety of the games, uncertainty looms large and has impacted those involved in organising the games. For instance, more than 10,000 Japanese volunteers have quit in the last few months. Likewise, several of the Japanese towns that previously agreed to host the athletes pulled out recently because of the fear of COVID-19 infection. Even in the absence of international spectators, during the Olympics, Tokyo is expecting more than 80,000 international visitors, including IOC officials, journalists and support staff, in addition to the 15,000 athletes.
Financial considerations appear to be an important factor driving organisers insistence on holding the games despite the COVID-19 situation. Japan has already spent a large amount of money. Official records suggest that Japan spent about $13 billion. However, it is estimated that the actual spending is much larger than the official claim; one report suggests that actual spending is about $28 billion. It is estimated that cancelling the games would cost Japan around 1.81 trillion yen ($17 billion). However, the same report also warns that the economic loss will be much higher in the event of another spike in COVID-19 cases during the Olympics games.
Japanese government's approach, going to great lengths to get the Olympics happening suggests that there is much more at stake than the financial loss. Japan had invested a great deal of political capital in organising the Olympics. The event is being viewed as an opportunity to recast its image as a vibrant country, an attempt to rehabilitate its lost status and prestige through decades of economic stagnation and the Fukushima nuclear accident.
PM Suga's Hurdles in the Run-up to the Olympics
In the context of mounting anti-Olympics sentiments, in holding the games PM Suga will have to overcome several hurdles. First and foremost, he will have to convince the Japanese people and the international community that the Tokyo Olympics can be held safely. A low COVID infection in Japan and, in particular, in Tokyo is a necessary condition for making a case for holding the games. Currently, the new daily infection reported in Tokyo is around 350. Experts have stressed that COVID-19 infection in Tokyo has to come down to an average of under 100 cases per day to make a case for safely organising the Olympics.A spike will lead to further domestic rejection of the games and could potentially trigger international cancellations. In this regard, the government has adopted a two-pronged approach of fighting the spread of the infection and speeding up the vaccine inoculation.
The second challenge is the Tokyo Metropolitan election scheduled on July 4. COVID-19 Pandemic and Olympics are already the leading issues of the election, and the result will reflect the will of the people of Tokyo in holding the Olympics. Opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party and Communist Party of Japan, are against holding the Olympics amid the pandemic. In contrast, PM Suga's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and ally Komeito arelobbying for the Olympics. Interestingly the incumbent Tomin First no Kai, the regional political party supported by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has kept all the options open. Poor performance of the LDP coalition will weaken PM Suga's position on the Olympics, and his responsibility as LDP President could also be called into question. There is also the danger of the election itself causing a surge in the COVID infection.
The political implications of the Olympics also loom large as two significant elections are scheduled after summer; LDP Presidential election in September and the Lower House election in October. PM Suga, who assumed power following the untimely resignation of PM Shinzo Abe in September last year, began his term at a high approval rating. However, his popularity has depreciated substantially through the last winter, mainly because of his handling of the pandemic. Many hold his flagship "Go-To Travel" campaign, a tourism promotion initiative supported by government subsidy encouraging Japanese citizens to travel domestically after the second wave last year, as responsible for triggering the third wave of the pandemic in the winter. Though the campaign was called off following the spike in infection, he has been facing criticism for prioritising economic activity over infection control. Public confidence, though appearing to bottom out after the third wave, Suga's approval rating plummeted in May again following the fourth wave of the pandemic.
Suga Cabinet Approval Rating
Public opinion polls have shown that the approval rating of the Cabinet is at its lowest level since the inauguration of the administration, while the disapproval rating is at a record high. As the general election is approaching, if public support for the Suga cabinet dips further, anxious politicians within the LDP will start calling out to replace PM Suga with somebody more popular. Former PM Abe, though a strong supporter of Suga, in a recent interview, announced his suggested line-up for post-Suga LDP leadership, suggesting a weakened position of PM Suga within the party.
If things go according to the script of PM Suga- containment of the infection through preventive measures and rapid vaccination, and successful Olympics and Paralympics without a major COVID outbreak will deliver a massive political victory for LDP and Suga. If the situation comes out as suggested, PM Suga will likely call for a snap election immediately after the Games, hoping to reap the success of the Olympics into a massive electoral success that will secure his position as the President of LDP, hence the office of the Prime Minister.
However, the situation is much more pressing and fast-developing, making it difficult for anyone to predict. Much is at stake, given the massive risk and uncertainty of holding an event like the Olympics in times of an unpredictable pandemic that can endanger the lives of Japanese citizens and people around the world. With pressure mounting and the world watching closely, despite how confident PM Suga appears about organising 'safe and secure' games, his final decision will be contingent upon developments over the next few weeks. Whatever may be the outcome, without a doubt, one thing is for sure, the next few weeks of the summer in Japan will be arduous and pose a massive challenge for PM Suga's leadership.
*Dr. Jojin V. John, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
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