When the Tokyo Olympics put out a call for volunteers, Nima Esnaashari signed up along with thousands of others in Japan eager to soak up the atmosphere of the world’s biggest sporting event.
But the closer the Games get, the more anxious he’s becoming about the risk of catching Covid-19. Like the majority of Japan’s population, he hasn’t been vaccinated and doesn’t know if he’ll receive a dose before the pandemic-delayed Games begin on July 23.
“I love the Olympics, but I don’t want to get corona,” said Esnaashari, a language teacher from Hyogo prefecture. “It’s great to be part of something bigger than yourself, but there’s a risk factor and at the current time it’s very high.”
Japan is fighting a fourth wave of Covid-19 and, though the virus isn’t spreading as quickly as it was in May, around 2,000 new cases are being reported each day. Just weeks away from the Olympics, fewer than 10% of Japan’s population has received at least one dose.
Taro Kono, Japan’s vaccine minister, said Tuesday 800,000 doses are being administered daily, and the country should reach 1 million doses per day by the end of June. However, at that rate, fewer than 20% of Japan would be fully vaccinated by the time the Games begin.
Games organizers plan to vaccinate 18,000 Olympic workers, including referees, staff, doping testers, and some volunteers. But with some 70,000 volunteers, there won’t be enough to go around. It is not clear how many of the volunteers will get a dose.
Of the 80,000 people who signed up to help at the Games, at least 10,000 have quit, mostly due to the pandemic. Esnaashari is still not sure if he’ll pull out.
“If I was to go without being vaccinated, in the back of my mind I would be thinking ‘am I going to get corona today, or is it going to be tomorrow?’”
Volunteers say they’ve been given little protection against Covid-19 beyond cloth masks, hand sanitizer and pamphlets instructing them to keep others at a safe 2-meter distance. The Olympic website encourages volunteers to take public transportation between their homes and Olympic venues.
Doctors are warning of the risks of having so many unvaccinated people moving in and out of the Olympic village. They fear the Olympics could push Japan’s already overstretched medical system to the brink.
Volunteers are disillusioned
An army of enthusiastic volunteers has been key to the success of recent Olympic Games, helping to operate venues and assist spectators and athletes. Around 50,000 volunteers were recruited to support the 2016 Rio Games, although reports suggest thousands quit their roles due to long working hours.
Tokyo organizers say the recent withdrawal of around 10,000 volunteers in Japan won’t impact operations because of other Covid-19 restrictions, including a ban on spectators meaning fewer overall numbers at the Games.
When college student Jun Hatakeyama signed up to volunteer at the Tokyo Olympics, he was filled with national pride – excited to welcome the world’s best athletes to his country.
But he says his enthusiasm slowly turned into anxiety and disillusionment as he witnessed one problem after another: from rising Olympic costs to sexist comments from the former head of the Tokyo Olympics, and now the decision to hold the Games from organizers barreling ahead with the event despite surging cases in Japan.
Hatakeyama has quit his role to make a statement.
“The Olympic Games is belittling human lives,” he said. “Our lives are not normal, it’s a state of emergency now. So why can we hold an Olympics 2020 now?”
“I think the meaning of the Olympic Games is completely forgotten.”