Tokyo new virus cases near 2,000 a day before Olympics open

Tokyo hit another six-month high in new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a day before the start of the Olympics, as concerns grew about a worsening of infections during the Games.

Thursday’s 1,979 new cases are the highest after 2,044 were reported on January 15.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, determined to hold the Olympics, placed Tokyo on a state of emergency on 12 July, but daily cases have risen sharply since then.

The emergency measures, which include a massive ban on the sale of alcohol and reduced hours for restaurants and bars, are due to last until August 22 after the Olympics ends on August 8.

Japan has reported nearly 853,000 cases and 15,100 deaths since the pandemic began, most of them this year. Nevertheless, the number of cases and deaths as a share of the population is much lower than in many other countries.

The Olympics, which have been delayed by a year due to the pandemic, begin on Friday. Spectators are banned in all locations in the Tokyo area, with limited audiences allowed at some outdoor venues.

Some say Suga’s government has been criticized for prioritizing the Olympics over the country’s health. Recent media polls have seen his public support rating drop to around 30%, and there has been little celebration before the Games. On Thursday, the director of the opening ceremony, Kentaro Kobayashi, was sacked over a previous Holocaust joke.

In Olympic diplomacy, Suga is scheduled to meet US First Lady Jill Biden on Thursday and have dinner at the state guest house. Earlier in the day, he was visited by the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Also on Thursday, Emperor Naruhito made a courtesy call on International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach at the Imperial Palace.

Experts say that virus infections are increasing rapidly among non-vaccinated people under the age of 50.

Vaccination in Japan began late and slowly, but picked up pace in May as the government pushed to ramp up campaigns ahead of the Olympics, although the pace has slowed due to a lack of imported vaccines.

About 23% of Japanese are fully vaccinated, well below the level needed for any meaningful effect on reducing risk in the general population.

Experts warned on Wednesday that infections in Tokyo were likely to worsen in the coming weeks.

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