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Editorial: Japan gov’t must respect scientific analysis in coronavirus response

  • March 10, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

A fortnight has passed since an expert government panel suggested that one to two weeks would be the make-or-break period for preventing an explosive spread of the new coronavirus in Japan. Now, the panel has compiled a new outlook.

So far, Japan has not yet seen the explosion of infections that has been feared. But the number of cases has continued to increase, with the underlying possibility that the virus is spreading invisibly. The expert panel therefore says that the situation remains critical.

 

The coronavirus has spread rapidly in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and the spark of infections in those areas can land in Japan. Even if the spread of infections in Japan is temporarily controlled, there is a high possibility that cases of the virus could flare up again.

 

In the future, the government must be prepared for a long-term battle in which the spread and control of the disease is repeated, and it must quickly and appropriately formulate measures to deal with such a scenario.

 

When doing so, it is important for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other officials to respect the scientific analysis of the expert panel. Abe’s request for all public elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan to temporarily suspend classes, and Japan’s stricter travel restrictions on people entering the country from China and South Korea were made without hearing the views of the expert panel.

 

Admittedly, there are times in crisis management when a political decision is needed. But grounds are needed for the public to agree with the move. Decisions that are not based on scientific analysis can have serious side effects.

 

Due to the abrupt request to suspend school lessons, some parents had to take time off work, and the move has affected other spheres including the medical field. Strengthening border controls without a solid basis not only increases the burden on quarantine workers, but could put the country one step behind in responding to other countries where the virus is spreading rapidly.

 

Understandably, it will take some time to analyze the effectiveness of the response taken by Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. We hope that the government’s response headquarters will avoid making hurried decisions, and that it will base its future responses on scientific analysis. The same goes when declaring an emergency situation under Japanese law.

 

In the western Japan city of Osaka, officials managed to detect a cluster of infections that occurred at a live music venue at an early stage and quickly responded to them. This kind of action will be important in the future. In order to implement such responses in the long term, support and measures to alleviate the burden on public health centers and other authorities on the front lines are essential. Furthermore, when asking sectors where group infections could easily occur to voluntarily suspend their operations, the government must consider compensating them.

 

When the number of infections increases, ordinary medical facilities will come to play a part in the response. Considering the risk of in-house infections, it will probably be impossible for all medical facilities to respond. The government needs to collaborate with the Japan Medical Association and prepare a system with shared roles.

 

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