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Japan expands state of emergency as COVID-19 shadows Olympics

Japan expands state of emergency as COVID-19 shadows Olympics

Smokers wait their turn in a queue as they observe social distancing, during a smoke break ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games that were postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Tokyo, Japan on Jul 22, 2021. (Photo: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)

TOKYO: Japan on Friday (Jul 30) extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and expanded the measure to four more regions as it battles a surge in COVID-19 cases a week into the pandemic-postponed Olympics.  

"We will issue a state of emergency for Saitama, Kanagawa and Osaka," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, adding that measures already in place in Tokyo and southern Okinawa will now run until Aug 31. 

Tokyo announced 3,300 new cases on Friday, after a record 3,865 the day before. The surge is beginning to strain the medical system, with 64 per cent of Tokyo's hospital beds available for serious COVID-19 cases already filled as of mid-week. 

READ: Olympic Games-related COVID-19 cases hospitalised as Tokyo cases surge

Japan has avoided a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, but is now struggling to contain the highly transmissible Delta variant, with daily cases nationwide topping 10,000 for the first time on Thursday, media reported.

Japan has imposed a series of "state of emergency" declarations, but the orders are mostly voluntary, unlike other countries which impose strict lockdowns.

Many people have grown weary of the stay-home requests, with some bars refusing to adhere to service restrictions, and Japan's vaccination roll-out lags.

Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said the country had entered a new "extremely frightening" stage as cases are spiking even though the movement of people was not increasing, and said the highly transmissible Delta variant was a big factor.

"I think that people cannot see ahead and, worrying how long this situation will last, they find it unbearable that they cannot return to normal daily life," he told the panel.

The surge in COVID-19 cases is bad news for Suga, whose support rates are already at their lowest since he took office last September and who faces a ruling party leadership race and general election later this year.

READ: Olympic host Tokyo's COVID-19 daily cases rise to 3,177, second straight record

Suga and Olympics organisers have denied there is any link between the Jul 23 to Aug 8 Summer Games and the recent sharp spike in cases.

Unlike the voluntary restrictions and low vaccination rates elsewhere in Japan, the Olympic village in Tokyo for athletes and coaches boasts more than 80 per cent vaccination, testing is compulsory and movement is stringently curtailed.

Athletes and other attendees from around the world must follow strict rules to prevent any spread of the virus within the "Olympic bubble" or to the wider city. Spectators are banned from most venues.

READ: A Tale of Two Cities - In the Olympic 'bubble' and the Tokyo outside

Organisers on Friday reported 27 new Games-related COVID-19 cases including three athletes, bringing the total Games-linked infections since Jul 1 to 220.

But experts worry holding the Games has sent a confusing message to the public about the need to limit activities.

Less than 30 per cent of residents of Japan are fully vaccinated. Nishimura repeated that all those who want to get vaccinated should be able to do so by October or November.

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Source: Agencies/vc

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