Spectators from abroad will be barred from the Tokyo Olympics when they open in four months, the IOC and local organizers said Saturday.
The decision was announced after an online meeting of the International Olympic Committee, the Japanese government, the Tokyo government, the International Paralympic Committee, and local organizers.
The move was expected and rumoured for several months. Officials said the risk was too great to admit ticket holders from overseas during a pandemic, an idea strongly opposed by the Japanese public. Japan has attributed about 8,800 deaths to COVID-19 and has controlled the virus better than most countries.
“In order to give clarity to ticket holders living overseas and to enable them to adjust their travel plans at this stage, the parties on the Japanese side have come to the conclusion that they will not be able to enter into Japan at the time of the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” the Tokyo organizing committee said in a statement.
About 1 million tickets are reported to have been sold to fans from outside Japan. Organizers have promised refunds, but this will be determined by so-called Authorized Ticket Resellers that handle sales outside Japan. These dealers charge fees of up to 20 per cent above the ticket price. It is not clear if the fees will be refunded.
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“We could wait until the very last moment to decide, except for the spectators,” said Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the organizing committee. “They have to secure accommodations and flights. So we have to decide early otherwise we will cause a lot of inconvenience from them. I know this is a very tough issue.”
IOC President Thomas Bach called it a “difficult decision.”
“We have to take decisions that may need sacrifice from everybody,” he said.
The financial burden of lost ticket sales falls on Japan. The local organizing committee budget called from $ 800 million income from ticket sales, the third largest income source in the privately finance budget. Any shortfall in the budget will have to be made up by Japanese government entities.
Overall, Japan is officially spending $ 15.4 billion US to organize the Olympics. Several government audits say the actual cost may be twice that much. All but $ 6.7 billion is public money.
About 4.45 million tickets were sold to Japan residents. Organizers are expected next month to announce the capacity at venues, which will be filled by local residents.
The ban on fans from abroad comes just days before the Olympic torch relay starts Thursday from Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan. It will last for 121 days, crisscross Japan with 10,000 runners, and is to end on July 23 at the opening ceremony at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
The relay will be a test for the Olympics and Paralympics, which will involve 15,400 athletes entering Japan. They will be tested before leaving home, tested upon arrival in Japan, and tested frequently while they reside in a secure “bubble” in the Athletes Village alongside Tokyo Bay.
Athletes will not be required to be vaccinated to enter Japan, but many will be.
In the midst of Saturday’s meeting, Bach and others were given a reminder about earthquake-prone northeastern Japan — and Japan in general.
A strong earthquake shook Tokyo and triggered a tsunami warning as Bach and others made introductory remarks before the virtual meeting. The strength was put a 7.0 by the U.S. Geological Survey and the location was in northeastern Japan, an area hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
“I think the screen is shaking. Have you noticed the screen is shaking,” Tamayo Marukawa, Japan’s Olympic minister, said as she made her presentation from Tokyo talking remotely to Bach visible on a screen in Switzerland. “We’re actually in the midst of an earthquake right now.”
Japan has decided to stage this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics without overseas spectators due to public concern about COVID-19, Kyodo news agency said on Tuesday, citing officials with knowledge of the matter.
The Tokyo 2020 games organizing committee said in response that a decision would be made by the end of March.
The Olympics, postponed by a year because of the pandemic, are scheduled for July 23 to Aug. 8 and the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
Kyodo said the government had concluded welcoming fans from abroad would not be possible given public concern about the coronavirus and the detection of more contagious variants in many countries, Kyodo cited the officials as saying.
The opening ceremony of the torch relay would also be held without any spectators, Kyodo said.
“The organizing committee has decided it is essential to hold the ceremony in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima behind closed doors, only permitting participants and invitees to take part in the event, to avoid large crowds forming amid the pandemic,” Kyodo said, quoting the officials.
Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto has said she wants a decision on whether to let in overseas spectators before the start of the torch relay on March 25.
“Five parties, the IOC, the IPC [International Paralympic Committee], Tokyo 2020, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the national government, came together for a meeting via online just last week,” the organizing committee said in response to the Kyodo report.
“The decision regarding allowing spectators from overseas to attend the Tokyo 2020 Games will be made by the end of March based on factors including the state of infections in Japan and other countries, possible epidemic-prevention measures, and expert scientific advice will be considered.”
In the last Olympic Games, the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, local fans accounted for 80 per cent of all ticket sales, with international fans buying 20 percent.
While coronavirus infection numbers have been relatively low in Japan compared with the United States and many European countries, the country has been hit hard by the third wave of the pandemic and Tokyo remains under a state of emergency.
Japan has recorded more than 441,200 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, with the death toll at more than 8,300.
Most Japanese people do not want international visitors to attend the Games amid fears that a large influx could spark a resurgence of infections, a Yomiuri newspaper poll showed.
The survey showed 77 per cent of respondents were against allowing foreign fans to attend, versus 18 per cent in favour.
Some 48 per cent said they were against allowing any spectators into venues and 45 per cent were in favour.
Canada has a new opponent at next month’s SheBelieves Cup in Orlando with Argentina replacing Japan at the four-team women’s soccer tournament.
U.S. Soccer said 10th-ranked Japan withdrew “citing the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic in their country.” Argentina will slot into Japan’s schedule and the order of games and kickoff times will not change.
The top-ranked U.S. and Brazil, tied for eighth with Canada in the FIFA world rankings, are the other teams participating in the sixth edition of the tournament.
Argentina, tied for 31st in the world rankings, made its third World Cup appearance in 2019 in France. The South Americans tied Japan 0-0 and Scotland 3-3 and lost 1-0 to England. The comeback against Scotland earned kudos, with the South Americans rallying from 3-0 down in the last 16 minutes.
The Canadian women are 4-0-0 against Argentina, although the two teams have not met since 2011 when Canada won 1-0 at the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
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Canada making tournament debut
It’s Canada’s first trip to the SheBelieves Cup, which runs Feb. 18 to 24,
The four teams will play out of a bubble in Orlando. U.S. Soccer says teams and staff will be tested for COVID-19 before traveling, upon arrival and every two days thereafter.
The teams will not begin full training until the results of all arrival tests are confirmed. A limited number of fans will be allowed into Exploria Stadium.
The top-ranked Americans have won the tournament three times (2016, 2018 and 2020).
Unlike the other three participants, Argentina did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
The United States will require airline passengers from the United Kingdom to test negative for COVID-19 before their flight, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced late Thursday.
The U.S. is the latest country to announce new travel restrictions because of a new variant of the coronavirus that is spreading in Britain and elsewhere.
Airline passengers from the U.K. will need to get negative COVID-19 tests within three days of their trip and provide the results to the airline, the CDC said in a statement. The agency said the order will be signed Friday and go into effect on Monday.
“If a passenger chooses not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding to the passenger,” the CDC said in its statement.
The agency said because of travel restrictions in place since March, air travel to the U.S. from the U.K. is already down by 90 per cent.
Last weekend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant of the coronavirus seemed to spread more easily than earlier ones and was moving rapidly through England. But Johnson stressed “there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,” or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
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This week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said three airlines with flights from London to New York — British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic — had agreed to require passengers to take a COVID-19 test before getting on the plane. United Airlines on Thursday agreed to do the same for its flights to Newark, N.J.
Britain has been under considerable pressure since word of the new variant of the virus was made public. Some 40 countries imposed travel bans on Britain, leaving the island nation increasingly isolated.
On Christmas Day, about 1,000 British soldiers were clearing a backlog of truck drivers stuck in southeast England after France briefly closed its border to the U.K. then demanded coronavirus tests from all amid fears of the new virus variant.
Even as an estimated 4,000 international truck drivers spent yet another day cooped up in their cabs, some progress was evident Friday, with traffic around the English Channel port of Dover moving in an orderly fashion toward the extra ferries that were put on to make the short crossing across to Calais in northern France.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities have ordered those arriving from the U.K. to quarantine for two weeks, after the country suspended direct flights from the U.K. earlier this week.
The order from the Rospotrebnadzor sanitary safety agency posted Friday on the portal of official information obliges all those travelling from the U.K. to remain in isolation for 14 days after their arrival in Russia. The measure is effective starting Saturday.
What’s happening in Canada
As of Friday morning, Canada’s COVID-19 case count stood at 535,243, with 76,459 of those cases considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 14,720.
The first shipment carrying doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Canada on Thursday afternoon, just over 24 hours after Health Canada authorized the vaccine for use in people over the age of 18.
The shipment contains a portion of the 168,000 doses expected to arrive before the end of the year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, along with a photo of a FedEx plane being unloaded at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
“This is another big step in our national vaccine rollout,” Trudeau said. “But it doesn’t mean we can let up just yet. The vaccine won’t help you if you get sick now.”
The first doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Canada. These are part of the 168,000 doses we’ll be getting before the end of the month, and part of the 40 million doses we’re guaranteed from Moderna overall. <a href=”https://t.co/eKhQ6v8xSA”>pic.twitter.com/eKhQ6v8xSA</a>
Canada on Thursday also expanded enhanced screening and monitoring measures for travellers arriving from South Africa, citing the rise of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus in that country, similar to one that has emerged in the U.K.
This followed a move on Wednesday by Trudeau to extend to Jan. 6 a ban on passenger flights arriving from the U.K., citing the variant.
No cases of the variants have been found in Canada so far, Health Canada said in a release, noting it had tested over 25,000 samples. “All travellers who have been in the United Kingdom or South Africa within the period of 14 days before the day on which they seek entry into Canada will be subject to secondary screening and enhanced measures,” Health Canada said.
Those measures include “increased scrutiny of quarantine plans,” it said.
Canada also updated travel advisories for both the U.K. and South Africa to advise extra caution. Health officials continue to advise against all non-essential international travel.
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COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise across Canada, with the two most populous provinces both posting record highs in new cases on Thursday.
In Ontario, where a provincewide lockdown is set to take effect after midnight on Boxing Day, Premier Doug Ford urged people to stay home.
“I know the lockdown starts on December 26 — but I have to tell you, folks, every time you take a trip it puts people in jeopardy,” he said. “So please, as of right now, please stay at home when you can.”
Ontario on Thursday reported 2,447 new cases of coronavirus and 49 additional deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 4,278. Hospitalizations stood at 967, with 277 COVID-19 patients in Ontario’s intensive care units, according to provincial data.
Meanwhile, Quebec reported a single-day record of 2,349 new cases on Thursday. Health officials in the province also reported 46 deaths, bringing the provincial death toll to 7,913. Hospitalizations stood at 1,052 with 146 people in ICUs, according to a provincial database.
Projections released by a government research centre — the Institut national d’excellence en santé et services sociaux (INESSS) — showed hospitals in Montreal are rapidly using up the space they have allotted for COVID-19 patients and could run out of beds by Jan. 12.
The projections, released weekly, noted that hospitalizations have more than doubled in the Montreal area over the past month.
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With COVID-19 cases on the rise, communities across Canada have made adjustments to traditional Christmas celebrations. Here’s a look at how some in Canada are celebrating this year.
What’s happening around the world
As of 1 p.m. ET on Friday, more than 79.6 million coronavirus cases had been reported worldwide, with more than 44.9 million cases considered recovered or resolved, according to a running tally kept by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The global death toll stood at more than 1.7 million.
Trump’s departure to his Palm Beach golf club came as Washington was still reeling over his surprise, eleventh-hour request that an end-of-year spending bill that congressional leaders spent months negotiating give most Americans $ 2,000 US COVID relief cheques — far more than the $ 600 members of his own party had agreed to.
The idea was swiftly rejected by House Republicans during a rare Christmas Eve session, leaving the proposal in limbo.
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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro used his Christmas message to cast more doubt on a coronavirus vaccine purchased by one of the country’s states from Chinese biopharmaceutical firm Sinovac.
In his live broadcast on social media Thursday, Bolsonaro said “the efficacy of that vaccine of Sao Paulo seems to be very low,” though he gave nothing specific. Sao Paulo health authorities have not presented complete trial results a week after announcing that there were encouraging Phase 3 studies on the shot’s effectiveness.
In Europe, Queen Elizabeth released her annual Christmas message in which she acknowledged the “difficult and unpredictable times” while paying tribute to front-line workers and young people who have helped their communities during the pandemic.
With infection rates soaring in recent weeks and many hospitals nearing their capacities, the British government on Dec. 19 cancelled Christmas gatherings and festive shopping for millions in a bid to control the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis made a Christmas Day plea for authorities to make COVID-19 vaccines available to all, insisting that the first in line should be the most vulnerable and needy, regardless of who holds the patents for the shots.
“Vaccines for everybody, especially for the most vulnerable and needy,” who should be first in line, Francis said in off-the-cuff remarks from his prepared text, calling the development of such vaccines “light of hope” for the world.
Amid a surge of coronavirus infections this fall in Italy, Francis broke with tradition for Christmas. Instead of delivering his Urbi et Orbi speech — Latin for “to the city and to the world” — from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he read it from inside a cavernous hall at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, flanked by two Christmas trees with blinking lights.
In Asia, Japan’s Health Ministry has confirmed the country’s first cases of infection with the new variant of the coronavirus that was identified in Britain.
The five people arrived between Dec. 18 and Dec. 21, before Japan stepped up border control on Friday for entrants from Britain. A man in his 60s developed fatigue, but the other four were without symptoms. Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said they were sent to quarantine straight from the airports.
Christmas Day has brought South Korea its biggest daily increase in coronavirus infections of the pandemic as officials urged for citizen vigilance to help curb a viral surge that has worsened hospitalization and deaths.
The 1,241 new confirmed cases reported Friday raised the country’s total to 54,770. Officials said 17 more people had died from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 773.
Authorities in China’s northeastern port city of Dalian are testing millions of residents after seven new coronavirus cases were reported there in the last 24 hours.
The cluster that has emerged in recent days has grown to 12 cases. In five neighbourhood divisions, authorities have shut schools and public spaces and are restricting anyone but essential workers from leaving their residential compounds.
In the Middle East, bells rang out around Bethlehem on Friday as the traditional birthplace of Jesus celebrated Christmas Day. But the closure of Israel’s international airport to foreign tourists, along with Palestinian restrictions banning intercity travel in the areas the Palestinian Authority administers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, kept visitors away.
The Israeli government will impose its third nationwide lockdown on Sunday to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The restrictions, which will last two weeks, include the shutdown of most non-essential businesses, limitations on gatherings and movement from people’s homes and reduced public transit.
In Africa, at least 15 people have died in recent weeks on the South African side of the Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe in lengthy queues that have been slowed by coronavirus screening, television news channel eNCA said on Friday.
The Health Ministry, Department of Home Affairs and South African police did not respond immediately to Reuters’s requests on Friday for confirmation of fatalities that local media outlets attributed to exhaustion and ill health owing to a lack of facilities while waiting to cross the border, sometimes for days.
Morocco announced it has acquired 65 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from China’s Sinopharm and Britain’s AstraZeneca, as the north African kingdom prepares to launch a COVID-19 vaccination program that aims to immunize 80 per cent of the country’s adult population.
The country has reported the second-highest number of virus infections and deaths in Africa, after South Africa.
Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission wrapped up last week when the sample container parachuted down in Australia. The mission certainly looked like a success at every step along the way, but the true test is whether or not it collected the sample it flew out there to get. Today, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed that Hayabusa2 did indeed bring back a piece of the asteroid Ryugu.
JAXA launched Hayabusa2 in 2014, and it didn’t reach its target until 2018. The team spent months scanning the asteroid, which turned out to be much more craggy than expected. Eventually, JAXA settled on sampling locations, and the probe did its thing. First, Hayabusa2 dropped down to the surface and fired a tantalum slug to launch tiny bits of the asteroid into the sample container. After that, Hayabusa2 launched an explosive-propelled slug into the asteroid to uncover pristine material, which it then collected with another trip to the surface.
All we could say with certainty before now is that the spacecraft performed every element of its mission exactly as it was supposed to. We had no way of knowing if there was asteroid regolith inside the containers until they were opened, and now they have been. The team had to wait until the sample container was inside a cleanroom in Japan before opening the outer shell.
The sample container inside the re-entry capsule was opened on December 14, and we confirmed black grains thought to be from Ryugu were inside. This is outside the main chambers, and likely particles attached to the sample catcher entrance. (English release available tomorrow) https://t.co/NAw1R1cjvypic.twitter.com/5BfXxfH29h
Upon opening the container, JAXA noted “a black sand granular sample believed to be derived from the asteroid Ryugu.” Even if that was the extent of the sample, it would still be a big success — that’s a lot more asteroid material than we had before. However, this sand is outside the main sample reservoir. Engineers believe there will be much more Ryugu material once they open that part of the container. The sand likely adhered to the sample catcher entrance, leaving it outside the main chamber.
JAXA’s goal was to get at least 100 milligrams of soil from the asteroid — it might be less, and it might be more. We won’t know until the rest of the container is examined. In a few years, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will return to Earth with samples from the asteroid Bennu. NASA’s design is somewhat more ambitious, aiming to collect at least 60 grams of regolith. Initial data from the probe suggests it might have scooped up around two kilograms or material. OSIRIS-REx will be back on Earth in 2023 if all goes as planned. In the meantime, JAXA will provide some of its asteroid samples to NASA.
Click on the video player above to watch live figure skating action from the ISU Figure Skating Grand Prix of Japan.
Coverage begins on Friday at 1:15 a.m. ET with the ladies short program, followed by ice dance at 3:15 a.m. ET, and men at 5:05 a.m. ET.
Return on Saturday at 1:25 a.m. ET for the ladies free program, followed by ice dance at 3:15 a.m. ET, and men at 5:35 a.m. ET.
Coverage concludes on Sunday at 12:15 a.m. ET with the gala exhibition.
That Figure Skating Show
If you’re looking for more figure skating coverage, CBC Sports’ That Figure Skating Show, hosted by former Canadian national team members Asher Hill and Olympian Dylan Moscovitch is back for another season.
Pounding rain that already caused deadly floods in southern Japan was moving northeast Wednesday, battering large areas of Japan’s main island, swelling more rivers, triggering mudslides and destroying houses and roads. At least 58 people have died in several days of flooding.
By Wednesday morning, parts of Nagano and Gifu in central Japan were flooded by massive downpours.
Footage on NHK television showed a swollen river gouging into the embankment, destroying a highway, while in the city of Gero, the rising river was flowing just below a bridge.
In a mountainous town of Takayama, several houses were hit by a mudslide, their residents all safely rescued.
In Kagoshima, a pickup truck was hit by a mudslide and fell into the ocean, but the driver was airlifted out with a head injury, according to Fuji Television. In another town in Oita, two brothers in the 80s were dug up alive by rescuers after a mudslide smashed into their hillside house, NHK said.
As of Wednesday morning, the death toll from the heavy rains starting over the weekend had risen to 58, most of them from the hardest-hit Kumamoto prefecture. Four others were found in Fukuoka, another prefecture on Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island.
Across the country, about 3.6 million people were advised to evacuate, although evacuation is not mandatory and the number of people who actually took shelter was not provided.
Rain subsided by Wednesday afternoon in many areas, where residents were busy cleaning up their homes and work places.
In Gero, a man washed down mud at the entrance of his riverside house despite the evacuation advisory. “I was told to run away and my neighbours all went, but I stayed,” he said. “I didn’t want my house to be washed away in my absence.”
In Oita, teachers at a nursery school were wiping the floor and drying the wet furniture. “I hope we can return to normal life as soon as possible,” Principal Yuko Kitaguchi told NHK.
Rain, flooding hamper rescue efforts
Though the rains were causing fresh flooding threats in central Japan, flooding was still affecting the southern region. And search and rescue operations continued in Kumamoto, where 14 people are still missing.
Tens of thousands of army troops, police and other rescue workers mobilized from around the country to assist, and the rescue operations have been hampered by the rains, flooding, mudslides and disrupted communications.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged residents to use caution. “Disasters may happen even with little rain where grounds have loosened from previous rainfalls,” he said.
Suga pledged continuing search and rescue effort, as well as the government:s emergency funds for the affected areas.
Japan is at high risk of heavy rain in early summer when wet and warm air from the East China Sea flows into a seasonal rain front above the country. In July 2018, more than 200 people, about half of them in Hiroshima, died from heavy rain and flooding in southwestern Japan.
Deep floodwaters and the risk of more mudslides that left at least 34 people confirmed or presumed dead hampered search and rescue operations Sunday in southern Japan, including at elderly home facilities where more than a dozen died and scores were still stranded.
Helicopters and boats rescued more people from their homes in the Kumamoto region. More than 40,000 defence troops, the coast guard and fire brigades were taking part in the operation.
Large areas along the Kuma River were swallowed by floodwaters, with many houses, buildings and vehicles submerged almost up to their roofs. Mudslides smashed into houses, sending people atop rooftops waving at rescuers.
At a flooded elderly care home in Kuma Village, where 14 residents were presumed dead after rescuers reached them on Saturday, rescue continued Sunday for the dozens of remaining residents and caregivers.
Sixty-five residents and about 30 caregivers were trapped at the riverside care facility Senjuen when floodwaters and mud gushed in. All remaining 51 residents, including three who had hypothermia, had been rescued by boats and taken to hospitals for treatment by Sunday afternoon, officials said.
Shigemitsu Sakoda, a local rafting company operator who joined defence troops in the rescue effort at the nursing home, said floodwaters were still high on the first floor when they arrived at the scene on rafts. “So we smashed windows with a hammer to get in,” he told Japanese broadcaster NHK. Soldiers went up to the roof to rescue survivors who were able to go upstairs while the waters rose, he said.
“Unfortunately, some of the residents could not make it to the second floor” Sakoda said.
Overall, 18 people were confirmed dead, while 16 others, including those at the nursing home, were presumed dead. Fourteen others were still missing as of Sunday afternoon. Dozens of others were still trapped in inundated areas waiting to be rescued, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.
In Hitoyoshi City, the deluge poured into houses near the main train station. “The water rose to the second floor so fast and I just couldn’t stop shivering,” a 55-year-old woman who was visiting her relatives told the Asahi newspaper.
She and her relatives ran upstairs, swam out of a window and eventually took refuge on the roof to wait for their rescue.
As floods eased in parts of Kumamoto on Sunday, vending machines and cars lay scattered on mud-coated streets. Some people were cleaning their homes, taking out damaged furniture and rinsing off mud.
More than 200,000 residents in Kumamoto prefecture were urged to evacuate following pounding rains on Friday evening and into Saturday. But the evacuation was not mandatory and many people opted to stay home because of concerns over catching the coronavirus, even though officials say shelters are adequately equipped with partitions and other safety measures.
Flooding also cut off power and communication lines, further delaying the search and rescue. Nearly 6,000 homes in Kumamoto were still without electricity Sunday, according to the Kyushu Electric Power Co.
The rainfall that exceeded 100 millimetres per hour has since subsided, but the Japan Meteorological Agency kept mudslide warnings in place across Kumamoto. Prefectural officials said evacuation advisories were still in place due to more rain in the forecast.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that he will declare a state of emergency for Tokyo and six other prefectures as early as Tuesday to bolster measures to fight the coronavirus, but that there will be no hard lockdowns.
Abe also told reporters Monday that his government will launch a 108 trillion yen ($ 1.4 trillion Cdn) stimulus package — Japan’s largest ever — to help counter the economic impact of the pandemic, including cash payouts to households in need and financial support to protect businesses and jobs.
Abe said experts on a government-commissioned task force urged him to prepare to declare a state of emergency, with the COVID-19 outbreak rapidly expanding in major cities including Tokyo, and hospitals and medical staff overburdened with patients. He said the state of emergency will cover Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and four other hard-hit prefectures, and will be in effect for about a month.
National broadcaster NHK identified the other prefectures as Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba and Hyogo.
Measures are expected to include a stay-at-home request for residents, but there will be no penalties for objectors. Public transportation, banks, groceries and other essential services will continue operating.
Abe said the state of emergency is intended to further reinforce social distancing between people to slow the spread of the outbreak, and to maintain as much social and economic activities as possible.
“But we need to ask everyone to step up co-operation,” he said.
Tokyo ‘already critical’: health official
The government enacted a special law in March that paved the way for Abe to declare a state of emergency. The law, however, is a divisive one because it could limit civil rights.
Abe said he will hold a news conference on Tuesday to further explain the state of emergency.
The economic package — which amounts to about 20 per cent of the GDP of Japan, the world’s third-largest economy — will pay out 300,000 yen ($ 3,890 Cdn) to each household with severe income loss due to the outbreak, and will include 26 trillion yen ($ 337 billion Cdn) to address delays in taxes and social welfare payments, Abe said.
“It’s to protect the people’s health and their lives,” he said.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the city will start transferring patients with no or slight symptoms from hospitals to hotels and other accommodations to make room for an influx of patients with severe symptoms.
Koike has raised alarms over the acceleration of the outbreak in the Japanese capital since late March, warning of an “infection explosion” and saying that the only way to avoid a complete lockdown of the city is to follow guidelines such as social distancing.
Haruo Ozaki, head of the Tokyo Medical Association, said that the situation in Tokyo “is already critical.” He said Tokyo’s infections are on the brink of being out of control due to a lack of restraint by residents.
Japan had kept its number of coronavirus cases relatively low by closely watching clusters and keeping them under control rather than conducting massive tests, but that strategy has become increasingly difficult because of a sharp rise of unlinkable cases.
Japan’s health ministry has confirmed 3,654 cases, including 84 deaths, as well as another 712 infections and 11 fatalities on a cruise ship that was quarantined in the port of Yokohama near Tokyo earlier this year.
They stand curb-side, shoulder to shoulder, breathing down each other’s necks, waiting for the light to change.
It’s rush hour at Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya crossing earlier this week. As workers head home and young people gather for the evening, there’s plenty of socializing and little social distancing.
In fact, except for a few extra masked faces, closed schools and subways that are less crowded than usual, there are few sign of panic or pandemic. Stores and restaurants are mostly open and office hours have been largely maintained.
“That’s Japanese culture,” said financial worker Riku Tanaka with a shrug. “It’s our culture to never take a break from work, no matter what.”
It’s only in the last week that pubs, karaoke bars and pachinko gaming parlours were officially encouraged to close, and police and barbed wire were posted to keep crowds from Japan’s iconic Sakura festival, when the cherry trees blossom and Tokyo turns pink. Parties are common in parks under the flowering branches.
“Move along,” a police officer told groups of gawkers this week. “You can see it next year.”
If Japan seems complacent about the threat of coronavirus in a world that’s been crippled by it, that’s partly because the number of infections here has been relatively low. Japan has had fewer than 3,000 confirmed cases and 80 deaths in a country with 126 million people ― more than three times the population of Canada.
Regional outbreaks in the northern island of Hokkaido, Osaka and elsewhere were given special attention, but declared resolved relatively quickly.
Tokyo numbers rising
Many consider Japan’s tidy streets and personal hygiene as its protective shield.
“Japanese people are quite careful about being clean,” said student Shunpei Kanai on a busy Tokyo street corner. He pointed to frequent hand washing and a culture of cleanliness.
Still, the country is getting nervous.
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has declared “high concern,” issuing increasingly anxious warnings for people to avoid going outside. The number of cases in the megacity is rising now by almost a hundred per day, shocking many.
Hospitals have been told to reserve beds only for the severely ill and to tell others who test positive to stay at home. With the Tokyo Olympics now postponed from this summer to July 2021, the government is considering using some sports facilities to house the sick.
“We’re just barely holding it together,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said this week. “If we loosen our grip even a little, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a sudden surge.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has conceded Japan is “barely holding the line,” but he’s been reluctant to declare a state of emergency, much less order a lockdown. Even if he did, Japanese law doesn’t give officials the kind of sweeping powers of enforcement other countries have to force people to stay home or impose fines on those who disobey.
Worries about impact on sagging economy
His government is worried about the impact on an economy that was already faltering before the crisis hit. Japan’s GDP is on track to shrink by 7.1 per cent, based on figures from the first quarter of the year, raising the spectre of a recession even worse than the last big one in 2008.
All of Japan’s auto makers, engines of the country’s economy, have stopped production because of falling demand worldwide. The cost of postponing the Olympics has been pegged at $ 6 billion US. The country’s tourism industry is in freefall.
Instead of calling the epidemic an emergency, Abe offered something a little less: a supply of two cloth facemasks per household, to address a national shortage.
“You can use soap to wash and re-use them, so this should be a good response,” he said.
Japanese Twitter users exploded with criticism of the government’s tepid response.
“Is the Japanese government for real? This is a total waste of tax money,” said a user named Usube. As with many commentators, the message was that Tokyo should be doing more.
“If too much consideration is put on the economy, there will be cases where we can’t protect lives,” said SatoMasahisa. “Life is the top priority.”
‘We have to be very careful’
Experts are watching Japan closely to see if it can keep the coronavirus under control without resorting to lockdowns or extensive testing, and without crippling the economy. No major nation has been able to do that, though Sweden is trying something similar, with mixed results.
Kenji Shibuya, a public health expert at King’s College in London and a former chief of health policy at the World Health Organization, is skeptical that his home country can pull it off.
He said either Japan has successfully been able to ferret out clusters of the disease and stop it from spreading through detective work, or “outbreaks are still to be found.”
“My guess is that Japan is about to see an explosion of transmission,” he said, “so we have to be very careful.”
Age is a factor
By one measure, Japan may be especially in danger. It has the oldest population in the world, with 28 per cent of people over the age of 65. Based on fatalities from the coronavirus globally, that’s the group with the highest risk of dying.
So far in Japan, all but a couple of deaths have been among patients over 70.
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Both Taiwan and Canada reported their first presumptive cases of COVID-19 within days of each other, but their experience of life with the pandemic has been quite different. Children in Taiwan are still in school, restaurants are open and there’s no shortage of protective supplies. Watch what Canada can learn from Taiwan’s approach to fight the spread of the coronavirus. 5:42
It’s exactly why Toshio Baba has barely been out of his house in more than a month — though this week, urgent errands took him down a crowded street in Tokyo’s Shinjuku commercial district. He’s 85 and walks slowly with a cane.
Baba is concerned the government’s delay in implementing stricter measures to prevent transmission is putting him — and many other Japanese — at risk.
“I’m definitely worried,” he said. “If a senior citizen like me tests positive for coronavirus and ends up in hospital, there’s not a great chance of survival, because my body would have to beat it on its own.”