They’ll be given a small bottle of hand sanitizer and two masks each.
“They don’t talk about vaccines, they don’t even talk about us being tested,” said German volunteer Barbara Holthus, who is director of Sophia University’s German Institute for Japanese Studies, in Tokyo.
That concern has been amplified by Japan’s battle with a looming fourth wave. The country passed 500,000 total coronavirus cases on Saturday, and some prefectures are again tightening their Covid-19 restrictions as daily infections grow. Hideaki Oka, a professor at Saitama Medical University, said Japan may not be able to contain the latest wave before the Games begin on July 23.
Holthus said supporting the Games was meant to be a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. “But now it’s just a really dangerous experience,” she said.
In a statement to CNN, Tokyo 2020 organizers said they were preparing to hold “a safe and secure Games without presuming there will be a vaccine and even without vaccines.”
“On the other hand, we hope that vaccines will be properly administered at home and abroad and that the infection will, therefore, be reduced as a whole,” the statement said.
Slow vaccine rollout
“They say elderly citizens are supposed to have a vaccination by June, but in reality, even medical staff who is treating Covid hasn’t got vaccinated yet,” said Oka from Saitama Medical University, adding he didn’t believe the June vaccination target would be met.
International spectators have been banned from the Games to try to lower the risk of Covid-19 spreading at the event. But more than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries are expected to participate.
Without plans to vaccinate athletes, the tens of thousands of volunteers taking part stand little chance of protection.
Holthus said Tokyo 2020 President Hashimoto Seiko told volunteers during a Zoom call she was relying “on your smile” to make the Olympics a success — a particularly jarring claim because they would all be wearing masks.
“(We were told) ‘Your smile is going to make the Olympics exist’ and you wonder, are you kidding me?” said Holthus, who is scheduled to volunteer as a ticket collector.
One volunteer, who attended an 80-minute lecture on infectious disease control for Games volunteers, said a top Japanese expert in infectious diseases told them they shouldn’t count on being vaccinated ahead of the event.
“(He said) unless you are elderly there won’t be enough time for ordinary people to get vaccinated,” said the volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid being excluded from her role in the Olympics. She said she felt angry and scared after the presentation.
The volunteer, who had taken part in previous Olympics, said she was considering dropping out unless all volunteers were vaccinated. “Not doing so is showing reckless disregard for our lives, and the optimal safe environment that Japan as a host country is obligated to provide,” she said.
Tokyo 2020 didn’t respond to questions on the content of the presentation given to volunteers.
Questions over athletes
Even countries with almost no infections have struggled to hold major sporting events during the pandemic.
For Japan, where there were 2,112 new cases on Tuesday, it is going to be a bigger challenge.
But according to the IOC document, athletes will not be required to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in Japan, unless they have breached the country’s Covid-19 precautions or potentially been exposed to the virus.
During the Games, participants will be “tested for Covid-19 at different intervals,” and all athletes and visitors will be assigned a “Covid-19 Liaison Officer.”
International guests have been asked to only leave their accommodation to “go to official Games venues and limited additional locations,” a list of which will be released in the second playbook, due to publish this month.
Hugs and high-fives are to be avoided and no public transport should be used. A face mask must be worn at all times.
Tokyo 2020 organizers did not respond to questions on how social distancing measures would be maintained at the Olympic village.
An Olympic super-spreader event?
While athletes in the Olympic village will have all tested negative before arriving in Japan, they will inevitably come in contact with tens of thousands of untested volunteers who will be shuttling between the Olympic venues and their homes.
In response to a question on whether any Tokyo 2020 events would be postponed due to Covid, the statement said that the situation was “changing every moment.”
Holthus said in addition to the hand sanitizer and two face masks, Games officials had offered volunteers a “health condition diary” in which they could record their own health status.
“It’s going to be concentrated groups of people from all over the world, mixing together. What if there is a cluster that develops in one of the Olympic venues? What if it comes from one of us?” she said.
Oka, the Saitama Medical University professor, shared the volunteers’ concerns, saying the Games could enable the spread of dangerous Covid-19 variants not only through Japan, but around the world.
Oka said he was also concerned Japan’s already stretched hospital system wouldn’t be able to cope if there was a sudden influx of athletes and volunteers infected with the virus. “As an infectious disease specialist, I cannot approve of holding the Games in a situation where not enough vaccinations has been made and enough countermeasures put in place,” he said.
In a statement to CNN, the Tokyo 2020 organizing body said it had “high hopes” the Covid-19 situation in Japan would improve ahead of the Olympics. “We will continue to work closely with these parties as we prepare to deliver a safe and secure Games this summer,” the statement said.
Olympics volunteer Philbert Ono said he trusted the government and the IOC to keep the athletes and volunteers safe.
“The Japanese, they love to witness history. And you know this Olympics is very, very much a historical Olympics … this is going to be a very different Olympics. And that’s another thing I’m looking forward to,” he said. “I just want to see how they do it.”
But Holthus said she didn’t believe the Games should go ahead with the current state of preparation, which was a “recipe for a super spreader event.”
“We can’t even yet imagine how bad it could be,” she said. “But the damage will be done once the Games are being held. There’s no turning that back once everybody flies in.”