Japan mobilised military doctors and nurses to give shots to elderly people in Tokyo and Osaka on Monday as the government desperately tries to accelerate its vaccination roll-out and curb coronavirus infections just two months before hosting the Olympics.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold the Olympics in Tokyo after a one-year delay and has made an ambitious pledge to finish vaccinating the country’s 36 million elderly people by the end of July, despite scepticism that it’s possible. Worries about public safety while many Japanese remain unvaccinated have prompted growing protests and calls for cancelling the Games, set to start on July 23.
Suga’s government has repeatedly expanded the area and duration of a largely voluntary request-based virus state of emergency since late April and has made its virus-fighting measures stricter. Currently, Tokyo and nine other areas that are home to 40 per cent of the country’s population are under the emergency and a further extension is deemed unavoidable.
With COVID-19 cases still high, Suga now says vaccines are key to getting infections under control. He has not made vaccinations conditional for holding the Olympics and has arranged for Pfizer to donate its vaccine for athletes through the International Olympic Committee, while trying to speed up Japan’s inoculation drive as anti-Olympics sentiment grows.
Suga, speaking to reporters after a brief visit to the Tokyo centre, said accelerating the vaccine roll-out is an “unprecedented challenge”.
“We will do whatever it takes to accomplish the project so that the people can get vaccinated and return to their ordinary daily lives as soon as possible,” he said.
At the two centres, staffed by about 280 military medical staff and 200 civilian nurses, the aim is to inoculate up to 10,000 people per day in Tokyo and 5,000 per day in Osaka for the next three months.
In hardest-hit Osaka, where hospitals are overflowing, with tens of thousands of people becoming sicker or even dying at home, dozens began lining up before the inoculation centre opened early on Monday. In Tokyo, some vaccine recipients said they took taxis or shuttle buses to get to the centre to avoid packed commuter trains.
People inoculated at the two centres were the first in Japan to receive doses from Moderna Inc, one of two foreign-developed vaccines Japan approved on Friday.
Previously, Japan had used only Pfizer Inc, and only about two per cent of the population of 126 million has received the required two doses.
Several other local governments, including Aichi in central Japan and Gunma near Tokyo and Miyagi in the north, also were to open their own large vaccination centre on Monday.