Scores of businesses across Tokyo have decided that the cost to their business is greater than any loosely enforced financial penalty. They will keep selling drinks and closing after 8pm during the Games. There is no punishment for drinkers, no stay at home orders and no police breaking up groups larger than a family.
Japan’s post-World War II aversion to government power left it hobbled with emergency measures that remain largely voluntary. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who faces an election by October, once again needed to muster all the symbolism of a state of emergency label last week to get the scale of the urgency across.
Virologist Hitoshi Oshitani, the architect of Japan’s early approach to the pandemic, said the government has to rely on the public voluntarily changing its behaviour.
“The state of emergency is more a symbolic message to the people,” the Japanese government adviser told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age from Tokyo.
“This particular one is a big challenge for us. People are complaining, there is not much law enforcement, just a minimal fine. So communication is a challenge and the people may not follow the government’s recommendation.”
In a country where compliance is mostly voluntary the subsequent decision to ban fans from largely outdoor stadiums was more about optics than virus transmissibility. The fear among those on the Japanese government’s COVID-19 panel was that the disconnect between a state of emergency and images of fans in the rafters would further undermine the public’s response to an already fragile state of emergency.
The COVID advisory panel told the Japanese government that the fans should go. The message was passed on to the Tokyo Organising Committee and the International Olympic Committee, the bodies that are tasked with implementing the restrictions in Olympic venues.
“When people look at a large number of spectators in the Olympic Games and then they say that we don’t have to follow the government’s order, ‘we just enjoy our party and so on,’ then it becomes more difficult,” Oshitani said.
Cruelly, perhaps, if Japan – like Australia – had not been so successful at containing the virus in its first waves, it would be a different story.
The infection surges that swept the UK last year gave it both a base level of immunity and an incentive to secure and deliver vaccines in record time. After keeping COVID cases to 814,000 compared to more than 5 million in the UK, Japan’s vaccination rate has been sluggish. To date, it has only fully vaccinated 15 per cent of its population, a third of the level in many parts of Europe and the United States.
“We cannot do what the UK is doing,” said Oshitani. “Our population does not have immunity to this virus.”
Worse, Oshitani said, the Delta strain had started hitting those in Japan in their 40s and 50s hardest. These patients, who have yet to be vaccinated unlike many of their parents, are also more likely to go to bars and restaurants as well as travel across Japan for the upcoming summer holidays.
For those on Japan’s coronavirus panel, the COVID summer spike, when many residents travel to local prefectures from Tokyo, is a bigger fear than the Games.
“That’s exactly what we saw last summer,” said Oshitani.
The celebrations in Wimbledon and Wembley also mask a looming threat.
If infection clusters have formed, they are not likely to be known until two to three weeks after the event.
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the React program from Imperial’s School of Public Health told Sky News UK on Friday that there was already an uptick in cases, particularly among young men from the early days of the Euro football tournament.
“We saw the same in Scotland around the Euros and visits to Wembley and matches in Glasgow,” he said. “Clearly, it’s not just going to the match, but it’s going to the pub, being in close proximity.”
For the unvaccinated, there is a cautionary tale from February 2020 when the virus was taking its first steps on European soil.
Atalanta, a battlers football team from Bergamo, Italy, was taking on Spanish giants Valencia. Forty thousand fans from Bergamo travelled to Milan to watch Atalanta pull off an unlikely 4-1 victory on February 19. Thousands more would fill out the town’s bars and restaurants, embracing with every goal.
Five weeks later the obituaries in the local newspaper filled a dozen pages.