Japanese government on the defensive after top coronavirus expert’s warning on risks of holding Olympics Japanese government on the defensive after top coronavirus expert’s warning on risks of holding Olympics

Japanese government on the defensive after top coronavirus expert’s warning on risks of holding Olympics

    NHK World
    It’s not unusual to hear voices in Japan questioning the wisdom of proceeding with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which are now less than seven weeks away. But the government didn't expect its top infectious disease expert to join the chorus. Omi Shigeru, head of the official coronavirus advisory panel, said last week that the government and Olympic organizers need a better understanding of the risks. Cabinet officials are now in damage control, while opposition lawmakers are clamoring for action.

    “It’s not normal to hold an Olympics in the middle of a pandemic,” Omi told lawmakers at a Diet committee on June 2. “If authorities are to go ahead with the Games, they must scale back the events and strengthen its management as much as possible.”

    On Wednesday, at a Lower House committee meeting, he explained his concerns about putting extra strain on the healthcare system.

    “The public would not tolerate forcing overwhelmed medical institutions to respond to infections caused by the Games,” he said. “It is the duty of the events’ organizing committee and Japan’s government to prevent such a situation.”

    Omi Shigeru
    Omi Shigeru is the head of the Japanese government's coronavirus advisory panel.

    Omi has chaired the government’s coronavirus panel since its inception last July. The panel studies the state of infections, draws up anti-virus measures and advises the government.

    But Omi now appears to be speaking up from outside the framework of the panel. He says he plans to compile “experts' views” on the risks of holding the Games, and publish them by June 20 - just one month and three days before the opening ceremony.

    Government officials react

    But senior members of the government have dismissed the comments of their lead virologist.

    “There are many experts, not just Omi,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu at a news conference on June 4. He said the government will continue to carefully listen to opinions of experts, within and outside the panel.

    Health Minister Tamura Norihisa was even blunter: “That’s just his own opinion from independent research.” He tried to reframe his comments four days later, saying, “What I was getting at is freedom of research is most important and has to be respected.” But he added that anything presented outside the remit of a government panel should be considered an independent study.

    On Tuesday, Omi tried to address the criticism by saying that he was just trying to present the anticipated risks and ways to alleviate those risks, “no more, no less.”

    Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers have lashed out at the government for refusing to convene a coronavirus panel to discuss the issues raised by the chair.

    “The government only listens to what they want to hear from the panel. When the opinion is unpleasant, they just say, ‘the Tokyo Games will go on, no matter what,” said senior Constitutional Democratic Party official Azumi Jun on Tuesday. “We in the opposition want the government to clarify the criteria for holding the Games.”

    Olympic Stadium
    The Tokyo Olympics are due to start on July 23. The Paralympics will run from August 24.

    Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and opposition party leaders debated the issue in the Diet on Wednesday.

    “We need to take thorough anti-virus and strict border-control measures to ensure safety and security,” Suga said. “By holding the Games, we want to demonstrate that the world can be united in the fight against the coronavirus, and overcome this grave challenge.”

    Tokyo 2020 Olympics & Paralympics
    Coronavirus updates