Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Jul 27, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
1 min read
A man walks past a display of newspaper reports on the Olympics on July 27 in Tokyo, which is under a state of emergency amid the pandemic. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

TOKYO — In the months leading up to the Olympic Games, the citizens of Tokyo became extremely worried about the possibility of tens of thousands of foreigners coming in and infecting them with the coronavirus.

Their concerns may have been misdirected. On Tuesday, Tokyo reported 2,848 new coronavirus cases, its highest daily count ever and four times the average at the end of June. But inside the Olympic bubble, the situation appears much more under control.

Over the past three days in Tokyo, an average of only 9,382 tests per day were administered, with positivity rates of as much as 30 percent, which is considered very high. In Japan as a whole, provisional figures showed more than 7,000 new cases, close to a record set in January.

By comparison, between July 1 and 25, more than 37,000 tests were administered to Olympic arrivals at Japan’s international airports, and just 30 positive cases were found, Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya said at a news conference, calculating a positivity rate of 0.08 percent.

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Nearly 240,000 screening tests have been administered to people related to the Olympics over the same time period, and 52 positive cases were found, giving a positivity rate of 0.02 percent, he said.

The total cases found in people connected to the Olympics since the start of July rose by seven, to 155, on Tuesday, although Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that 14 police officers working security for the Games have also tested positive.

“The main thing we can do is to continue to give comfort to everyone that . . . we are doing everything we need to do, and we are keeping testing rates very, very high and the infection rate is very, very low,” said International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams.

One of the main reasons for banning domestic spectators at the Olympics was that allowing fans into venues would send the wrong signal to Tokyo residents during a state of emergency that was imposed this month.

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Ironically, the state of emergency is largely being ignored. Central Tokyo remains crowded during the day, and some neighborhoods are still lively at night despite a government request for restaurants to close early and bars to refrain from serving alcohol.

This week, the Nikkei newspaper reported that half the bars and restaurants in the Shinjuku area were not following government guidelines, partly because official compensation payments had been delayed.

In contrast, Olympic athletes and officials are under constant surveillance to make sure they are observing strict pandemic rules. They are allowed to remove their masks for only 30 seconds during medal ceremonies, for example.

Aside from the strict rules and constant testing inside the Olympic bubble, one of the main explanations for the lower caseload appears to be much higher vaccination rates. All IOC officials are vaccinated, and around 85 percent of competitors and more than 70 percent of media representatives are.

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In Japan as a whole, just over 25 percent of the population has received two doses of coronavirus vaccine. But the fact that vaccine coverage is much higher among the elderly has helped prevent deaths from surging, with just two recorded in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga chaired a meeting Tuesday to discuss measures to respond to the surge in cases, according to media reports.

Afterward, he said that people younger than 40 made up 70 percent of all new cases, and that there had been a rise in hospitalizations of people in their 40s and 50s.

“For the people of Japan, I would like to ask them to refrain from going out, and to watch the Olympics and Paralympics on TV,” he told reporters, according to the Mainichi newspaper.

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