A mounting COVID-19 emergency in Osaka has prompted fresh urging to call off the Tokyo Olympics.
Hospitals in Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, are buckling under a huge wave of new coronavirus infections, running out of beds and ventilators as exhausted doctors warn of a “system collapse”.
Japan’s western region, home to nine million people, is suffering the brunt of the fourth wave of the pandemic. It has accounted for a third of the nation’s death toll in May, although it constitutes just 7 per cent of its population.
The speed at which Osaka’s healthcare system was overwhelmed underscores the challenges of hosting a major global sports event in two months, particularly as only about half of Japan’s medical staff have completed inoculations.
“Simply put, this is a collapse of the medical system,” said Yuji Tohda, the director of Kindai University Hospital in Osaka.
“The highly infectious British variant and slipping alertness have led to this explosive growth in the number of patients.”
By Thursday, 96 per cent of the 348 hospital beds Osaka reserves for serious virus cases were in use, with the prefecture registering 3849 new positive tests in the week, a five-fold jump over the corresponding period three months ago.
Just 14 per cent of the prefecture’s 13,770 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalised, leaving the majority to fend for themselves. The latest hospitalisation rate in Tokyo – 500 kilometres from Osaka – in comparison, is 37 per cent.
A government advisory panel considers rates of less than 25 per cent as a trigger to consider imposition of a state of emergency.
Akira Takasu, the head of emergency medicine at Osaka Medical and Pharmaceutical University Hospital, warned against staging the Olympics, which are scheduled for Tokyo from July 23 to August 8.
“The Olympics should be stopped, because we already have failed to stop the flow of new variants from England, and next might be an inflow of Indian variants,” he said.
He was referring to a variant first found in India that the World Health Organisation designated as being of concern after initial studies showed it spread more easily.
“In the Olympics, 70,000 or 80,000 athletes and the people will come to this country from around the world. This may be a trigger for another disaster in the summer,” Dr Takasu said.
Since March, 17 people have died from the disease outside the Osaka prefecture’s hospitals, officials said this month.
The variant can make even young people very sick quickly, and once seriously ill, patients find it tough to make a recovery, said Toshiaki Minami, the director of OMPUH.
“I believe that until now many young people thought they were invincible. But that can’t be the case this time around. Everyone is equally bearing the risk,” he said.