Asia’s COVID tsunami threatens to engulf the Olympic Games

Organisation: Position: Deadline Date: Location:

Once envied for their ability to contain the spread of COVID-19, many Asian countries are now battling new strains of the coronavirus and case numbers are rising, reports MedicalBrief. On the eve of the Olympic Games, Tokyo is in a state of emergency and authorities have said no spectators will be allowed. Three members of South Africa’s football team have tested positive and been quarantined.

In the second week of July, Indonesia reported nearly twice as many coronavirus cases as the United States, wrote Mike Ives for The New York Times. Malaysia’s per capita caseload is roughly on par with those of Brazil and Iran. And the latest COVID surges in Japan and South Korea prompted harsh new restrictions on movement there, effective on 12 July.

“Across the Asia-Pacific region, the Delta variant is driving new outbreaks in places where transmission was once kept relatively low, but where the pace of vaccination has been too slow to contain the latest outbreaks.

“One result is that everyday activities are again being restricted, just as they were in the anxious, early days of the pandemic – even as the West edges back to normalcy,” The New York Times reported.

Why cases are increasing

In The Conversation on 15 July, Associate Professor Teguh Haryo Sasongko of the school of medicine at Perdana University in Malaysia, said two main factors were behind increases in cases of COVID-19 in several Southeast Asian countries – human mobility and activities, and the spread of new coronavirus variants.

“The drastic rise of COVID-19 cases in Thailand during April 2021 was preceded by increased activities in workplaces that peaked in March. In Malaysia and Indonesia, being Muslim countries, most people celebrated Eid in May,” he wrote.

“Despite government restrictions, people travelled to meet their families…We can easily relate the current spikes with the increase in mobility.”

Further, government efforts to boost economic recovery following the 2020 COVID-caused economic downturn, has also been attributed to an increase in cases. “In Malaysia, for instance, more than 50% of about 9,300 new cases between February and April 2021 were found in workplaces, among construction and factory workers,” wrote Haryo Sasongko.

“It’s also clear that the new SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern are significant factors in the unprecedented spike. The Delta variant, for example, has shown transmission capacity and immune evasiveness that was never seen before for a coronavirus.

“This means there is increasing risk for the delta variant to wreak havoc an otherwise healthy immune system. What happened in India was a clear sign of this.”

All four variants of concern – Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta – have appeared in Southeast Asia, mainly in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. “The COVID cases are increasing in those countries, although Singapore tough measures have managed to control it.”

Slow vaccination

In Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, government had hoped that its archipelagic geography and youthful population would avert a debilitating outbreak, The New York Times story said.

“But only about 13% of its 270 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the rise of Delta is pushing its health system to the brink and forcing some patients to hunt for oxygen.

“On 3 July, the government closed mosques, schools, shopping malls and sports facilities on two of Indonesia’s major islands for two weeks. But the daily average of new cases – more than 33,000 as of 11 July – continued to climb. Officials said they would extend the same emergency rules to other islands.”

Hospitals in the area of the capital Jakarta have been inundated with patients. An earlier Times story reported that doctors who received the Chinese vaccine Sinovac had nevertheless been succumbing to COVID – by 25 June, more than 400 doctors had died. The government said it would now administer the Moderna vaccine to some 1.5 million health workers.”

“In other Southeast Asian countries, too, the percentages of populations that have received even one shot are in the single or low double digits. And as variant-driven infections proliferate, some are seeing their worst outbreaks yet,” Mike Ives wrote.

The New York Times story continues: In Myanmar, where health workers have been striking to protest the military’s February coup, cases have been sharply rising and schools have been closed until 23 July.

“People in several Malaysian cities are chafing under strict lockdowns as the country reports the region’s highest per capita caseload. Vietnam is restricting movement in its two major cities and scrambling to import vaccines. And a terminal at Thailand’s largest international airport is being converted into a field hospital.”

Even wealthier countries in Asia have made little progress in vaccination drives. In Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, less than one person in three has had a shot, according to The New York Times tracker.

New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, recently reported its largest daily increase in cases this year, as well as Australia’s first coronavirus-related death for 2021, a woman in her 90s. The state capital Sydney has been under a stay-at-home lockdown since 26 June.

Reuters reported on 17 July that – as new COVID-19 cases kept rising three weeks into the lockdown – the city of five million people tightened restrictions, ordering building sites to shut down, banning non-essential retained and threatening to find employers who make staff come into the office. The planned end date to the current lockdown is now 30 July.

In South Korea, July has brought record daily new infections – though at around 1,200 to 1,400 per day in the past couple of weeks, the number is not as high as in some nations.

In the capital Seoul and in some neighbouring regions, the government has raised restrictions to the highest. Schools have been closed, along with bars and nightclubs, and no more than two people would be allowed to meet in public after 18.00.

On 18 July, Bloomberg reported that South Korea was to also ban private gatherings of more than four people outside the greater Seoul area. On Monday 19 July Al Jazeera revealed that 247 sailors from a 301-strong crew on board a South Korean warship involved in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Africa. They are being returned home.

Japan and the Olympics

And in Japan, Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency took effect on 12 July, less than two weeks before the Summer Olympics begin there on 23 July. Restaurants, department stores and other businesses were asked to close early.

Organisers of the Summer Games have said they will bar spectators from most events in Tokyo and its surrounding areas, making this the first games to be held without spectators.

A ceremony marking the Olympic torch’s arrival in the city was held in a nearly empty park. On 10 July, according to The New York Times, Fukushima Prefecture said that it would also ban spectators from Olympic events because of the surging caseload – reversing a position announced two days earlier by Olympic organisers.

According to Bloomberg, Toyko has been grappling with a surge in coronavirus cases that prompted the government to declare the fourth state of emergency in the capital in early July. The city reported 1,410 new infections on Saturday 17 July – the most since January – and there are 55 positive cases so far tied to the Tokyo Games.

Tokyo’s Olympic organising committee said on 18 July that two foreign athletes had tested positive for COVID-19 at the Tokyo Olympic Village – the first cases reported among competitors at the village.

It turned out that three members of South Africa’s Olympic football had tested positive after arriving in the Olympic Village – two footballers and an official, according to the South African Football Association in a press release on Sunday. The footballers are Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi, and the official is video analyst Mario Masha.

According to CNN, the team left South Africa on 13 July and arrived in Tokyo the following day. They had reported negative results. The video analyst tested positive Thursday and went into isolation, while the athletes tested positive on Friday and Saturday respectively. The whole team is now under quarantine "until cleared to train," according to the association.

Subsequently, Sky News reported, eight members of the British Olympic team had gone into isolation after coming into contact with a COVID case on a flight to Tokyo that landed on Friday 16 July.



The New York Times story – Short on vaccines, Asia grapples with Delta-driven outbreaks (Restricted access)


The Conversation article – COVID-19 in Southeast Asia: all eyes on Indonesia (Open access)


CNN story – Tokyo 2020: Two South African footballers test positive for Covid-19 in Olympic Village (Open access)


Reuters story – Sydney tightens lockdown as Australia's COVID-19 cases rise (Open access)


See also from the MedicalBrief archives


Delta variant’s dominance in much of the world forces governments to change tack


India’s COVID crisis – New cases decline but daily deaths top 4,500


In The Same Breath: Documentary's scathing assessment of China's COVID-19 response


Suicide rates rise sharply in COVID-19's second wave — Japan Health ministry data




Receive Medical Brief's free weekly e-newsletter

Related Posts

Thank you for subscribing to MedicalBrief

MedicalBrief is Africa’s premier medical news and research weekly newsletter. MedicalBrief is published every Thursday and delivered free of charge by email to over 33 000 health professionals.

Please consider completing the form below. The information you supply is optional and will only be used to compile a demographic profile of our subscribers. Your personal details will never be shared with a third party.

Thank you for taking the time to complete the form.