The new coronavirus outbreak has created a situation that goes beyond the capabilities of hospitals and fire departments. The Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are assisting with containment efforts and providing medical support as they do in the event of natural disasters. Since the outbreak is expected to be protracted, it will be necessary to figure out how to transfer the SDF’s skills and knowledge to the private sector and local governments.
The SDF has assisted with containment efforts and supported local medical facilities as part of disaster relief for the new coronavirus outbreak.
SDF nurses assisted with the collection of samples for PCR tests at Haneda and Narita airports. The SDF has supported transport of Japanese returnees from abroad and food delivery to returnees under quarantine. Since the end of March, over 6,000 SDF personnel have participated in such efforts.
Besides these efforts, the SDF has assisted in virus testing and support of daily activities in local areas in response to requests from prefectural governors.
Disaster relief is positioned as SDF’s secondary mission, to be carried out in a way that it will not impede SDF’s primary mission of national defense. SDF’s disaster relief operations are limited to emergency response activities that cannot be handled by the private sector.
The SDF “should always have some power in reserve” for infectious disease outbreaks and natural disasters, says defense minister Taro Kono. The Ministry of Defense plans to gradually transfer SDF’s duties to private organizations and local governments.
When SDF activities are transferred to the private sector, the SDF’s knowledge, such as protective measures [against the virus], should be transferred as well. An SDF insider says that the SDF has provided medical support as part of disaster relief in the past, but cannot not recall an instance where skills and knowledge were transferred.
The Ground SDF is using YouTube as a new communications tool. The GSDF has released videos that show how to put on and remove protective gear and how to protect the interior of a vehicle against infection.
About 4,000 SDF personnel were deployed to support operations aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, but none became infected. The sharing of knowledge is increasingly important in view of reports that some healthcare workers and testing staff have been infected.
An issue for the future is collaboration with the private sector in time of peace. The U.S. and Israel are model cases in this respect.
Cooperation between the military, police, fire departments is important during emergencies. The U.S. has a setup called the Incident Command System (ICS), where the line of command is standardized among organizations. When the military, police, or fire departments are deployed for terrorist attacks or natural disasters, they can take action as a single organization.
Nihon University Professor Mitsuru Fukuda says that Japan should adopt the ICS system. He proposes having the police or the SDF participate in local disaster prevention systems. Fukuda points out that each organization has an independent line of command and communication channel, and that “the SDF and police have not traditionally been on good terms.”
The SDF, police, and fire department will conduct joint training at the local level in anticipation of natural disasters. Having a system that enables smooth lines of communication in emergencies is essential.
Israel has been ranked number one in a survey of safety against the new coronavirus. In the survey, conducted by a Hong Kong firm Deep Knowledge Ventures as of April 12, Israel was rated particularly highly for “efficiency of government management.”
In Israel, where people live side-by-side with conflict and terrorism, the notion of “civilian defense” is pervasive. The military and public security offices share information with private sectors in peacetime, transmitting their skills and knowledge on crisis management to private sectors to prepare for contingencies.
There are widely-used apps that notify users of terrorist attacks and communication channels to release information. The government distributes a risk management manual to each household.
University of Tokyo professor Satoshi Ikeuchi, who specializes in Middle Eastern politics, says that people in Israel are “accustomed to encountering emergencies in their daily lives. “ Information regarding self-quarantining for the new coronavirus was quickly transmitted to people. Hotels with a close relationship with the army promptly functioned as quarantine facilities.
Ikeuchi says that in Israel, technology developed for military purposes is quickly adapted for civilian use, and the line between military and private sectors is not clearly defined.
It would be difficult to take the relationship of the Israeli military and private sectors and apply it to the Japanese situation. It is said that the threat of new types of infections will become the “new normal.” The private sector should make an effort to build up a body of knowledge on risk management.