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Japan's COVID-19 Cases Rise As Paralympic Athletes Descend On Tokyo

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For the second time this year, thousands of international athletes have descended on Tokyo. After the Olympics, the Japanese capital is now hosting the Paralympic Games, a multisport event for athletes with physical disabilities. But with COVID-19 infection rates rising across the country, organizers worry about the health risks. Joining me now on the line is Motoko Rich. She is The New York Times Tokyo bureau chief. Thanks for joining us.

MOTOKO RICH: Hi. How are you?

FADEL: So this is a little bit of déjà vu. Just last month, there was a lot of disapproval and some anger about holding the games despite serious concerns over the spread of COVID. Are people feeling the same way at the start of the Paralympics?

RICH: I think so. I mean, there's just a lot of anxiety. The case numbers are rising, particularly severe cases. Hospitals are overburdened. And so people are worried about whether or not the Paralympics can exacerbate the situation here in Japan. There are now 21 prefectures that are under a state of emergency, so it's certainly turning into a more serious situation here.

FADEL: Now, we watched COVID surge in Japan throughout the Olympics. Now it continues to spread, like you say. How is it impacting the games?

RICH: So, I mean, I think it's probably not quite fair to draw a direct connection to the - from the games to the increase because it's happening all over Japan, not just in Tokyo where the games are happening.

FADEL: Right.

RICH: But there is some sense that because of the games, certainly with the Olympics, that people felt that there was kind of a normalization of certain kinds of behaviors. You know, if the Olympics is happening, we can also go out and have dinner and that kind of thing. And that has definitely led to a spread. But in terms of how it's impacted the games, the athletes are under very strict protocols. They have to be tested every day. Anyone who came into the country from overseas has to quarantine for 14 days, which means they can only go to their venues and their hotels. They can't go out. They're under, you know, pretty strict surveillance. So it's definitely changing the way the games are occurring. And above all, there are no spectators in the stands.

FADEL: So, again, no spectators for the Paralympics, as well.

RICH: Exactly. Exactly.

FADEL: Now, you were at the opening ceremony, which took place yesterday. What was that like?

RICH: Well, it's similar - I was also at the opening ceremony for the Olympics. And it is just eerie, and there's a little bit of a sense of bittersweetness, right? You're looking out across a stadium that was built specially for the event. It could seat 68,000 people, and instead, there are just the media and a handful of dignitaries and staff and a lot of volunteers who are really doing yeoman's work, dancing and supporting the athletes. I mean, the centerpiece of both opening ceremonies is the march of the athletes. And they come in, and normally they're waving to the stands. And people are cheering and hooting and giving them a lot of support. And then instead, they're waving to TV cameras.

FADEL: In terms of the actual competition, what's different this year versus previous Paralympics?

RICH: So there are a couple of new sports. There's taekwondo and - actually it's slipping my mind what else there is. But there are - surprisingly, considering COVID and the fact that 20 - I believe it's 20 or 21 countries are not sending people to the games, that they're close to the record high that participated in the London Paralympics. So in some ways, despite the pandemic, the Paralympic movement has been expanding. It was very successful in London. It dipped a little bit in Rio, and then it's back up - the number of countries participating is back up over the number in Rio. This time, of course, there's also the refugees again, but the Afghan delegation has not been able to come.

FADEL: Motoko Rich is The New York Times Tokyo bureau chief. Thanks for your time.

RICH: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "YOU GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.