Until around 10 April, Japan had unusually few confirmed cases of Covid-19, but government advisers warned that a recent spike could lead to a runaway spread that could overwhelm the health system.
That exactly happened when the cases spiked suddenly by 16 April. Preempting this, the government had declared a state of emergency on 7 April and announced a huge fiscal stimulus package.
Compared to other countries, the emergency measures are far more lenient. The economic stimulus package was more generous worth a whopping 108.2 trillion yen ($993 billion), equal to 20 per cent of Japan’s economic output, to cushion the impact of the epidemic on the country’s economy.
At the time of writing (15 May), Japan had 16,022 infection cases, 710 deaths and 10,792 recoveries. But the impact of the virus on the country’s economy is telling. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faced critical choices: to effect a delicate balance between suppressing a resurgence of the virus and rekindling the faltering economy.
Coming under severe criticism from the people for the manner of handling the issue, Abe decided on 14 May to lift the state of emergency in all but eight of the nation’s 47 prefectures, though emergency was first announced to remain in force till 31 May.
Tokyo and seven prefectures are to remain under emergency measures for some time. The decision was prompted by the signs of progress in the decrease of new patients and expanding testing infrastructure.
At the same time, people were warned that there could be a flare-up if restrictive measures are eased too abruptly.
Abe also cautioned the residents in prefectures where emergency was lifted to return to everyday life gradually, like avoiding non-urgent face-to-face meetings, embracing progressive changes in lifestyle like telecommuting, wearing masks and maintaining vigilance over the Covid-19.
It is feared that the virus will continue to stay and therefore self-restricting norms are going to be the new normal.
The same is going to be the case all over the world, even if the vaccine is made available. Just as the dreaded HIV continues to persist, so will Covid-19, and people will have to learn to live with it.
The eight prefectures ~ Hokkaido, Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto ~ will continue to maintain restrictions because of their strained healthcare systems and fears of new outbreaks in urban areas that could spiral out of control.
A review is planned to be taken on 21 May whether to maintain or relax restrictions. Nevertheless, social distancing and advice to avoid crowded areas shall be the new norms hereafter.
Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of the government’s coronavirus response, has warned that the government will reimpose restrictions if the number of patients increases dramatically again. Japanese law is unique.
The law does not give the leaders authority to actually enforce business shutdowns with penalties, as has been done in the US and Europe. It was feared that greater movement of people during the ensuing Golden Week between late Aril and early May could further spread the virus and exacerbate the situation.
Abe’s unilateral emergency declaration unleashed a backlash from some governors of prefectures where the numbers of new patients were relatively low.
Governors of some prefectures started to ease the emergency measures and just appealed to people’s conscience to stay inside and temporarily shut businesses to prevent the transmission of the virus..Though Abe’s tenure in office is not under threat, his handling of the coronavirus cases on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had docked at Yokohama port, left much to be desired.
Japan faces numerous hurdles before it can achieve a return to precoronavirus normality.
It has stubbornly resisted increasing virus testing to higher levels, an essential prerequisite for safe reopening and the first step before potentially infected contacts can be traced and isolated to halt outbreaks.
This is in vast contrast to measures taken by neighbouring South Korea. Abe found that his wellintentioned, much-derided emergency care package of face masks for every household to mitigate the effects of the pandemic was in tatters after tens of thousands of defective items sent to expectant mothers were returned by local governments.
What was initially intended as a thoughtful gesture, and which cynics dubbed “Abenomask” as a ploy to improve the Abe administration’s approval ratings, left the government with an additional 800 million yen ($7.46 million) bill to inspect all the returned items on top of the 46.6 billion yen it earmarked for the project.
As of the end of April, approximately 470,000 cloth masks for pregnant women were delivered.
Of these, around 10 per cent, or 47,000, were judged to be defective or discoloured, which is why local governments shipped them back to the sender. Though the government stuck to the programme and promised to redeliver masks in pristine condition, the damage to Abe’s reputation was already done.
A country known for its quality-check of its products, this experience tarnished Japan’s reputation and created doubts on the product quality, a damage Japan can ill-afford to allow.
The decision to make a cash handout of 100,000 yen to every citizen including foreign residents who are on the Basic Resident Register and hold visa valid for more than three months was however welcome.
The pandemic has forced Japanese people to make some significant lifestyle changes.
The practice of exchanging business cards, for example, can be a health hazard and could be less popular. Japan might as well move towards electronic money. That would be difficult and inconvenience many.
With inadequate nursing care facility, taking care of the aging population would put additional burden on government finance.
Where the Japanese have an edge over many overseas countries is the exemplary discipline they show in daily life.
Without law enforcing power, the government can depend on positive public response to request, made in the media and television, to people to obey government guidelines.
That said, the challenge confronting Shinzo Abe is gigantic.
(To be concluded)