Protection of Games volunteers left in limbo

TOKYO • For Olympic host cities, one of the keys to a successful Games is the army of volunteers cheerfully performing a range of duties, like fetching water, driving vehicles, interpreting for athletes or carrying medals to ceremonies.

If the rescheduled Tokyo Games go ahead as planned, the roughly 78,000 volunteers will have another responsibility: preventing the spread of the coronavirus, both among participants and themselves.

For protection, the volunteers are being offered little more than a couple of masks, a bottle of hand sanitiser and mantras about social distancing.

Unless they qualify for vaccination through Japan's slow age-based roll-out, they will not be inoculated against Covid-19.

Many volunteers are disappointed that they will not be offered vaccines before the July 23-Aug 8 Games and so far, organisers have said they are not considering prioritising Japan's Olympic athletes for vaccination, much less volunteers.

"I don't know how we're going to be able to do this," said Akiko Kariya, a paralegal who has signed up to volunteer as an interpreter.

"The Olympic committee hasn't told us exactly what they will do to keep us safe."

As organisers have scrambled to assure the globe that Tokyo can pull off the Games amid the pandemic, the volunteers have been left largely on their own to figure out how to avoid infection.

With less than three months to go before the opening ceremony, the organisers have yet to decide whether domestic spectators will be admitted, or hammer out details about who, besides the athletes, will be tested regularly.

Tens of thousands of participants will descend on Tokyo from more than 200 countries after nearly a year in which Japan's borders have been largely closed to outsiders.

The volunteers' assignments will bring them into contact with many of the Olympic visitors as they pass in and out of a bubble that will encompass the Olympic Village and other venues.

"There are a lot of people who have to go in and out of the bubble, and they are not protected at all and not even being tested," said Barbara Holthus, a volunteer and deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo.

"I do see the risk of a super-spreader event."

A leaflet distributed to volunteers advises them to ask visitors to stand at least 1m apart. During shifts, they should disinfect their hands frequently. If offering assistance to someone, they should avoid directly facing the other person and never talk without a mask.

"Mask-wearing and hand-washing are very basic, but doing that to the max is the most important thing we can do," said Natsuki Den, senior director of volunteer promotion for the Tokyo organising committee. "People often say, 'That is so basic; is that all you can do?'

"But if every volunteer implements these basic measures, it can really limit the risk. Beyond that, it is hard to think of any magic countermeasures because they don't really exist."

Even as a majority of the Japanese public have remained opposed to hosting the Olympics this year, many volunteers say they are committed, at least in principle, to fostering international fellowship after more than a year of isolation.

But volunteers worry about their own health as well as the safety of the athletes and other Olympic participants, especially as Tokyo experiences new spikes in virus cases, with the capital currently under its third state of emergency.

In addition to the volunteers, organisers need to secure medical workers. Typically, doctors and nurses also volunteer to work at the Olympics, but this year, with the medical system overstretched, healthcare workers are hesitant.

"We are surprised about the talk going around requesting the dispatch of 500 nurses to the Tokyo Olympics," the Japan Federation of Medical Workers' Unions said, adding that "now is not the time for the Olympics, it's time for coronavirus countermeasures".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2021, with the headline 'Protection of Games volunteers left in limbo'. Subscribe