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Editorial: New legislation to tackle the virus fails to put concerns to rest

  • March 12, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 12:15 p.m.
  • English Press

The Lower House Cabinet Committee on March 11 approved a bill to revise a  special measures law so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration can take stronger action to fight the raging novel coronavirus epidemic.


The bill is expected to be approved by a plenary session of the Lower House and then by the Upper House on March 13.


The revision is designed to add COVID-19 to the list of viral diseases targeted under the law. Some critics made a strong case for correcting the shortcomings in the law that have been highlighted by what has now officially been declared a pandemic as part of the revision to ensure that no serious problem arises when steps are taken under the law.


But their voices have been drowned out by a chorus of calls for enacting the bill quickly to handle the current emergency. This is a shame.


One of the flaws that has come to the fore concerns the procedure for the prime minister to declare a state of emergency.


When the step is taken, the prefectural governors will have the power to take a wide range of powerful measures. They include urging people to stay at home as much as possible, imposing restrictions on events, and issuing requests and orders to ensure the transportation of emergency supplies and request sales of medical products, foodstuffs and fuel and expropriating these products if necessary.


Opposition parties initially demanded that the law should be amended to require the prime minister to consult with experts and gain Diet approval before declaring a state of emergency.

After talks between the ruling coalition and the opposition camp, however, a bipartisan agreement was reached on the proposal to add a supplementary resolution to the bill without revising it.


The supplementary resolution calls for the prime minister to report his decision to declare a state of emergency to the Diet in advance and respect the opinions of both the ruling and opposition camps in taking actions under the law.


The declaration is a severe policy action that would restrict the rights of citizens and could create a claustrophobic sense of being trapped in a crisis. The Abe administration needs to act strictly according to the spirit of the resolution and show to the public well-defined criteria for invoking this provision.


The current government ordinance for enforcing the law is disturbingly vague on the criteria, only saying the step can be taken in a situation where “the frequency of very serious cases is considerably higher than during ordinary influenza outbreaks.” This vague description leaves wide room for interpretation.


The National Governors’ Association has called for clearer standards including better ideas about how to decide on which areas should be subjected to the measures.


It will help curb public anxiety to set specific numerical criteria where possible for objectivity and transparency, including the ratio of serious cases, the fatality rate, the extent of infection in each region and the number of patients treated at medical institutions.


The prime minister should make the decision after considering all these factors and opinions of experts in varies fields. This is a common-sense approach to tackling the challenge.


But we feel compelled to point out the obvious because Abe and other senior administration officials have taken a raft of actions that indicate a serious lack of understanding about the real meaning of “the rule of law.” This is all the more worrisome because a series of political reforms have significantly increased the power of the administrative branch.


In responding to the coronavirus epidemic, Abe has made some abrupt decisions to take drastic measures without seeking advice from experts, including calling for voluntary restrictions on events and nationwide school closures. These measures were not even included in the basic guidelines for responding to the crisis the government itself announced immediately before these moves.


Abe took these actions without offering detailed and convincing explanations to the public, leaving the public to be affected by the measures and forced to handle the confusing consequences.


Despite the aid measures Abe later unveiled, such as financial support to people facing reduced incomes, the way he took the actions has left deep public distrust.


During the March 11 Lower House Cabinet Committee session, Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic revitalization and responsible for the special measures law, repeatedly said the government will be “as meticulous as possible” in explaining its responses and “make the decision very cautiously.”


The administration should act strictly on this promise.

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