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How To Keep Okinawa's Centenarians Safe From COVID-19

The Japanese archipelago Okinawa is both a popular travel destination and home to the highest ratio of very old people. That makes it particularly vulnerable to coronavirus.

Young and old in Japan
Young and old in Japan

The Japanese island of Okinawa is both a popular tourist destination, and home to one of the world's oldest populations. Add to that the upcoming holiday season known as Golden Week, from April 29 to May 9, and it's a potential "perfect storm" of trouble for a location that until now has been largely spared from coronavirus.

For this reason, island authorities are literally begging would-be travelers not to come to Okinawa, reports Taiwanese Central News Agency. "I heard that more than 60,000 people have reserved flights for this year's Golden Week and plan to come to Okinawa," the Governor Denny Tamaki wrote April 26 on his Twitter account. "I beg everyone to cancel their travel plans. Please!"

Japan's fifth largest island, and still home to a significant U.S. military presence, Okinawa is particularly vulnerable to the pandemic because of its demographics, with the world's highest proportions of centenarians, 76 for every 100,000 inhabitants. The situation is putting local health and social-care infrastructures under enormous stress, although fortunately, the prefecture has so far not recorded any seriously ill coronavirus patients out of a total of 137 confirmed cases.

Other top destinations in Japan are trying to warn off visitors as well. In the Greater Tokyo Area, authorities — and even some tourism operators themselves — are urging people to stay away from the Shonan Coast, a stretch of shoreline popular for swimming and surfing.

In the northern city of Hirosaki, famous for its late-April cherry and apple blossoms, the mayor went so far as ask inhabitants not to post photos of the flowers on social media, which might tempt people to visit the city, which normally holds its Hanami Festival at this time.

Under Japanese law, the government has no authority to enforce citywide lockdowns. It has issued social-distancing recommendations but cannot restrict a citizen's free movement, and is thus relying on the public to cooperate voluntarily.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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