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Editorial: Government needs to set clear goal for easing virus restrictions

  • May 8, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 12:43p.m.
  • English Press

Some prefectures started easing social distancing guidelines after the end of the Golden Week holidays on May 6, although the nationwide state of emergency over the new coronavirus outbreak has been extended to the end of May.

 

But many residents in hard-hit areas, especially the 13 prefectures designated as “special alert areas” including Tokyo and Osaka, continue suffering great hardships in the face of a bleak and uncertain future.

 

To dispel this sense of deep frustration and uncertainty, the Osaka prefectural government has set its own criteria for easing the voluntary stay-at-home and business closure requests.

 

The local government has said it will start phasing out the measures when three preconditions are met for seven consecutive days. The conditions are less than 10 new confirmed cases with no known exposure; a positive rate under 7 percent among people who have received polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests using respiratory samples; and an occupancy rate of below 60 percent for hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in serious conditions.

 

The prefectural administration has also announced parameters for reintroducing social distancing restrictions when the situation turns for the worse again.

Such specific numerical criteria are easy to grasp and offer motivation to local residents. Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura spoke for many people when he said, “It’s irresponsible to require people to keep running in a tunnel with no exit in sight.”

 

The central government should take a page out of Osaka’s playbook and consider steps to “visualize the goal” of the anti-virus measures.

 

That is better than simply explaining when the measures can be eased in the vague language it has used so far, such as “based on a comprehensive assessment” of factors like the infection situation and the medical system’s capabilities.

 

It will be difficult, of course, to set uniform criteria for the entire nation.

 

There are areas where the number of hospitals that can deal with patients showing severe symptoms is quite limited. An outbreak of infections within such a key local hospital could immediately cause a serious shortage of hospital beds for patients in serious conditions in the area.

 

Various other regional factors also need to be weighed, such as the ratio of elderly people in the local population and the feasibility of close cooperation with neighboring prefectures.

 

That means the task of formulating such criteria requires careful consideration of all the relevant local factors and would be best left to local governments.

 

But it is possible for the central government to establish basic guidelines for local government efforts to formulate their own plans to relax and scrap the measures. It can, for example, describe in detail basic numerical criteria for taking these steps, such as the number of new cases and the positive rate, and cite other indicators that should be taken into consideration.

 

Needless to say, the guidelines should be quickly supplemented and revised if new information or knowledge emerges to require such changes.

 

To alleviate concerns that the actual numbers of infected people in Japan may be much larger than the figures announced by the government, it is vital to swiftly boost the nation’s PCR testing capacity.

 

As factors behind the slow increase in the number of tests performed, the panel of experts advising the government on its anti-virus strategy has cited excess workload at public health centers, a shortage of protective gear and insufficient capacity to transport samples.

 

All these problems have long been warned about. The government says there have not been strong calls for enhancing the testing capacity in Japan because the country has not been hit by virus epidemics in recent years, such as the global severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

 

But this is no justification for the health ministry’s failure to better prepare the nation for this pandemic.

 

It is also important to use antibody tests as they are developed as well as quick test kits in addition to PCR tests to give experts and policymakers a better sense of how widespread the infection is in the population.

 

This is necessary for laying a solid foundation for efforts to not just develop plans to lift the state of emergency but also to map out a long-term strategy for dealing with the huge, far-reaching consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

 

The government should keep this fact firmly in mind.

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