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Commentary– How Japan’s post-coronavirus reopening should proceed

  • May 5, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



WASHINGTON – As Japan continues to muddle through its response to the spread of the new coronavirus, the rest of the world has moved to the next phase.


In Europe, China, South Korea and the United States, countries are strategizing ways to resume economic and social activities, albeit still with an abundance of caution. Even as the state of emergency currently in place will be extended beyond May 6, the Japanese government must continue planning for reopening the country.


Of course, the first order of business is to carefully craft a plan for resuming domestic social and economic activities. While Japan spent the last month mostly playing catch-up with Europe, North America and other parts of Asia in its response to COVID-19, this will also give Japan the benefit of observing the others’ efforts to reopen their countries, including which measures are the most effective.


Japan should monitor how other countries have been proceeding. Looking at what the others have been doing so far, there are a couple of important lessons Japan can learn as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his advisers consider different approaches.


First and foremost, a phased reopening tied to a specific set of benchmarks seems critical. From Europe to the U.S., most countries that have taken the first step toward reopening use a few common benchmarks: a downward trend in new cases for 14 consecutive days, availability of testing, and ample supplies that are critical for doctors and nurses such as protective gear and face masks. For Japan as well, these benchmarks seem to be the safe way to go.


Second, as the government takes gradual steps toward reopening, clear communication is critical. Where do things stand? What are the criteria under which businesses can determine when and how to resume their operations? Can playgrounds and parks reopen? Can violators be penalized by fines and other measures that are hefty enough to serve as a deterrent? How should individuals decide whether or not to relax social distancing practices? Will nonessential travel continue to be discouraged and if so, for how long?


Laying out these specifics and not leaving it up to individual interpretation and/or voluntary efforts on the part of the public will be essential as the country moves to carefully resume its activities.


Equally important is an unambiguous will demonstrated on the part of the government to — should the country be suspected of facing another spike in COVID-19 cases or should the public not heed the government’s guidance — reimpose restrictions on some (or many) of the resumed activities so that the second spike can be contained and the curve can be flattened as quickly as realistically possible.


In the U.S., for example, California last week ordered the closure of all public beaches in Orange County after people flocked to them in disregard of the existing stay-at-home order, following the state government’s announcement of their partial opening.


Japan should not repeat the mistake of waiting too long to declare a state of emergency and issuing social distancing and other guidelines to contain the spread of the virus. The responses in places like South Korea and Taiwan offer important lessons for Japan both in terms of its effort to contain infections and to gradually resume economic and social activities.


Third, it is essential for Japan to learn from other countries how they address some social issues that have been triggered by prolonged stay-at-home orders and other restrictions on people’s movements and activities.


The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) warned on April 28 that a six-month period of lockdowns could lead to 31 million additional cases of domestic violence worldwide. In the U.S., police departments in major cities across the country have reported a spike — anywhere from 7 to 22 percent — in reports of domestic violence compared to the same period last year. Japan should anticipate a similar trend and take proactive steps to minimize the risk.


Finally, even though the short-term focus of Japan’s leadership will understandably be on getting the nation’s house in order, it also needs be aware that world events do not wait for Japan — and the world in general — to contain the pandemic and move on.


For instance, as countries in Asia as well as the U.S. remain preoccupied with their responses to COVID-19, there have been rumors swirling around North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health, throwing the future of the Korean Peninsula into question. China’s assertive behavior in the East China and South China seas also continues despite the challenges Beijing faces with the pandemic.


Furthermore, looking beyond the current emergency, the impact of COVID-19 may trigger a recalibration of Japan’s foreign policy outlook as well. This could include a way to further enhance Japan’s support for Taiwan’s participation in multinational agencies such as the World Health Organization, and leveraging public health to further normalize Tokyo’s relations with South Korea.


The way in which some countries are using their citizens’ smartphone location data to track their movements to contain COVID-19 infections could also provide support for the proposal that Abe made at last year’s World Economic Forum conference in Davos about establishing global norms on how the government can use big data and other digital information.


Either way, Abe will have a lot on his plate for the next several weeks. And his legacy depends on how he addresses these internal and external challenges.


Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

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