Tokyo schoolchildren will attend Paralympics despite surging Covid-19 cases overwhelming hospitals
- On Thursday, more than 25,000 new infections were reported nationwide for the first time. New daily highs were also recorded in 22 of Japan’s 47 prefectures
- The burden on Tokyo’s health care system this week led to the death of a baby born prematurely to a woman who was isolating at home due to a shortage of hospital beds
The number of new infections has shown little signs of slowing in Tokyo or nationwide. The increased strain on health care systems this week led to the death of a baby born prematurely to a woman who was isolating at home not far from Tokyo due to a shortage of hospital beds.
In Tokyo, 5,534 new cases were reported on Thursday, the second-highest daily increase for the capital. Nationwide, more than 25,000 new infections were reported for the first time. New daily highs were also recorded in 22 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
The number of patients in critical conditions increased by 49 to 1,765, a new high for a seventh straight day. Health authorities also reported 28 deaths nationwide.
Tokyo’s metropolitan government has nevertheless allowed tens of thousands of children to attend Paralympic events, despite four members of the Tokyo board of education this week objecting to the proposal.
However, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike on Friday pledged to hold the Paralympics safely.
“The Tokyo Games will not be a success, without the success of the Paralympics,” she said.
The Paralympics will open on Tuesday and run until September 5, involving about 4,500 athletes from 160 countries and territories.
Shigeru Omi, the head of the government’s task force on the pandemic, this week told a parliamentary subcommittee “the status of infections is a lot worse now [than during the Olympics]”.
“Now is the time for the central and local governments to take stronger leadership than ever in tackling the situation from the viewpoint of disaster medical care,” Omi said. “I want them to take all necessary countermeasures by fully utilising the special measures law.”
A city official said schools were eager for students to experience the Games and that every possible safety measure would be implemented.
The conservative Sankei tabloid has thrown its support behind the plan for schoolchildren to attend, claiming in a recent editorial that authorities had “deprived [Japanese] children … of a meaningful, possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience in sufficiently safe Olympic venues”.
Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, said children could attend the Paralympics safely but emphasised the risk is “not zero and any risk that is completely avoidable is arguably too much of a risk”.
“It’s more than just the chance of exposure at a stadium,” she said. “These children will have to get to the venues and they will probably have to use public transport and they will come into contact with other people as they travel through Tokyo.
“What happens if there is some sort of accident? Tokyo’s hospitals are already at capacity and an incident would increase the pressures on medical facilities. To me, it’s just not a good idea at this stage.”
Tsukamoto has two teenage daughters and said she would have “reservations” about them attending Paralympic events.
“I would not stop them if they really insisted that they wanted to see a particular event, but I would sit them down and very clearly explain the risks involved and how they can limit those risks,” she said. “But it’s not right to say there is no risk at all.”
The pressures on Japan’s medical system were underlined on Thursday when officials in Kashiwa, 30km northeast of Tokyo, confirmed a baby died after being born prematurely to a woman isolating at home because no hospital beds were available.
The woman, who was eight months pregnant, tested positive for Covid-19 last week and was told to recuperate at home. No hospitals in the neighbourhood were able to admit her when she went into labour early.
“The survival rate for babies of that age is normally very high so this child had a good chance if she had been able to get to hospital,” Tsukamoto said. “To me, this is a sign that the medical system is failing. The government needs to change the law so that they have the power to order hospitals to admit people who are seriously ill.”