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Japan’s central government has declared a third state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with new restrictions imposed on the prefectures of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo. Local leaders have called for the move as they face a sharp rise in new coronavirus cases.
The statement comes as Tokyo prepares to host the Summer Olympics, which are expected to begin in July, and just before Japan enters one of its biggest holiday seasons, Golden Week, in late April.
The emergency measures stop before the total lockdown, but impose limits on restaurants and other businesses. The stricter rules will apply to places that sell alcohol or offer karaoke – they will be asked to close completely, while many other venues will close at 8pm. The new policies, which involve fines but largely rely on voluntary compliance, go into effect on Sunday and will last at least May 11.
Nationwide, Japan is seeing spikes in new cases and hospitalizations, both rising to record highs that were seen in early 2021. About 5,452 people tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, according to the Ministry of Health, del Work and Wellness.
Health officials attribute much of the new wave of cases to the rapid spread of new coronavirus variants that were first detected in the UK and other countries, Kyodo News reports.
In the Tokyo region, government and sports officials have been continually forced to adjust plans for the 2020 Games, which have been postponed to this summer due to the pandemic. Last month, organizers said no international fans will be allowed to participate in the games this summer.
The Olympic torch relay, which toured Japan, was hijacked from the public streets of Osaka, site of the worst spike in new cases. And while the mascot statues for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have now been officially unveiled, they are not yet on public display, due to fears of the spread of the coronavirus, according to public broadcaster NHK.
Japanese health officials are also concerned about the country’s very low vaccination rate. Fewer than 850,000 people in Japan are fully vaccinated, a surprisingly low number for an advanced country with a population of around 126 million.
The Japanese health ministry has authorized only one vaccine, manufactured by Pfizer / BioNTech. This decision came in mid-February, putting the country far behind its peers in the massive effort to launch and administer vaccine doses to protect itself from COVID-19. Many Japanese are also wary of vaccines, after a decade-long series of scandals undermined public confidence.
Overall, Japan has reported around 560,000 coronavirus cases and 9,800 deaths from COVID-19, according to the latest government data.