The government said its decision to extend a nationwide state of emergency over the new coronavirus outbreak to the end of May could lead to a lifting of restrictions on the activities of people and businesses earlier in areas where the spread of the infection is contained to a certain extent. Even so, many Japanese will remain subject to restrictions on their freedom and rights for the time being.
The government has a duty to review its efforts to control the infection, which have been widely criticized as “too small, too late,” to protect the people’s lives and livelihoods. The government also needs to map out an effective strategy for bringing social and economic activities back to normal and present specific data to the public to show that it has an exit plan. In doing so, the entire nation will be privy to the government’s view of the current situation and its outlook of the crisis.
In addition to policy support to people facing sharp drops in their incomes and the prospect of job losses due to the government’s request for voluntary business closures, a clear policy priority must be to beef up the nation’s medical capabilities to treat COVID-19 patients.
The number of newly confirmed cases is trending down, but the number of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests using respiratory samples performed daily across the country has not grown in line with a plan announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Experts advising the government have admitted that the entire picture of the outbreak remains unknown.
This makes it impossible to craft an effective exit strategy or remove public distrust of the Abe administration.
Shortages of hazmat suits and ventilators have yet to be relieved significantly. There is a long list of problems that need to be addressed swiftly, including securing sufficient hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in serious condition, securing more hotel rooms and other lodgings for taking care of patients with mild or no symptoms and providing physical and mental care for workers at medical institutions and public health centers.
The supplementary budget the Diet recently passed to finance spending related to the pandemic contains 149 billion yen ($1.4 billion) in subsidies to enhance medical capabilities. But many experts contend the sum is not enough. If the health care system is overwhelmed, there will be no hope for a swift return to normalcy.
It is vital to take quickly proactive measures to contain the infection.
The panel of experts advising the government on its anti-virus strategy has proposed a “new lifestyle” for areas where the spread of the virus has been brought under control. But the proposal includes most of the restrictions and instructions currently in place, which people have grudgingly accepted as emergency measures.
The expert panel’s recommendations underscore the enormity of the challenges involved in achieving what the administration describes as a “V-shaped recovery.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that the path back to some sense of normality will be a lengthy stop-and-go, back-and-forth process marked by repeated phases of tightening and loosing the restrictions in response to ebbs and flows in the level of the seriousness of the situation.
It is crucial for the government to lay out a long-term vision for dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. This policy vision should not just include plans for ending the state of emergency but also offer blueprints for Japan’s society and economy after that.
This is a mission beyond the capabilities of the anti-virus expert panel, which is composed mostly of medical and health care experts, and the advisory council on the matter, most of whose members also serve the expert panel.
The government needs to form a new advisory panel of experts from a wide range of fields to discuss the pressing policy challenges that look likely to loom in the coming months and years to come up with proposals to tackle them.
During a May 4 news conference to announce the extension of the state of emergency, Abe talked little about long-term policy plans based on the assumption that this battle is likely to be a long, drawn-out process.
Political leaders worth their salt should be ready to think about the worst-case scenarios people do not want to think about and develop plans to prepare the nation for such dire situations.