The ending of a nationwide state of emergency over the new coronavirus outbreak marks a major step forward in returning the nation to a normal daily life, which has been badly disrupted.
But that does not mean this insidious virus has disappeared. The central and local governments as well as medical institutions need to glean necessary lessons from the several turbulent weeks of fighting the virus to prepare for a possible second and third wave.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 25 announced the lifting of the remaining state of emergency in Tokyo, Hokkaido and three prefectures neighboring the capital. The move brought an end to the measure introduced about one and a half months ago.
At the news conference announcing the decision, Abe called on the nation to continue efforts to establish a “new lifestyle” including maintaining proper social distancing.
EFFECTIVENESS OF ‘JAPANESE APPROACH’ NEEDS ASSESSMENT
Unlike lockdowns imposed in many other countries, the restrictions on outings and business operations in Japan are based only on “requests” from the government and lack legal enforceability supported by punishment for violations.
Under this unique approach, which depends on voluntary efforts by individual citizens, Japan has managed to avoid entering a phase of exponential growth in cases of infection. The total number of confirmed deaths from the pandemic in Japan so far is about 800, far lower than the figures for most major Western industrial nations, which have reached the tens of thousands.
Abe proudly said that the “Japanese model” has been successful, but its effectiveness should be rigorously assessed to find possible problems to be corrected.
Since the number of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that have been carried out in Japan is much lower than in most other major countries, the suspicion remains that there may be a huge number of cases that have not been detected.
There are also concerns that the government’s decision to start gradually easing the restrictions on the activities of people and businesses before the end of May, when the extended state of emergency was to expire, could turn out to be premature.
Even though the decision to fully lift the state of emergency is based on a comprehensive assessment of various factors including the capabilities of the health care system, ending the measure even in areas that have yet to meet the numerical criteria for taking the step could leave room for arbitrary political decisions in the future.
There are a plethora of challenges that need to be confronted and tackled. For example, there have been reports about cases where people who have tested positive were forced to stay home because of a lack of institutions that could accept them and died after their health condition suddenly deteriorated.
Some patients who needed emergency care were passed from hospital to hospital. Many people who were showing suspicious symptoms such as fever and difficulty breathing had difficulty finding a hospital to visit or even could not seek counsel since the designated telephone line for consultation remained busy.
The first order of business for the government in its efforts to prepare the nation for a possible resurgence of the virus is to ensure that all people who have suspicious symptoms can see a doctor and be immediately tested.
The nation also has to brace itself for a possible outbreak of influenza that causes similar symptoms this autumn or later. That means the nation’s medical system will have to deal with more patients very quickly. The government also needs to come up with effective measures to prevent the spread of infection within hospitals and clusters of cases at facilities for elderly people.
‘CLOGGED’ COMMUNICATION WITH THE PUBLIC
Despite the fact that the outbreak has been brought under control, the public takes a dim view of the Abe administration’s response to the health crisis.
In an Asahi Shimbun survey last weekend, 57 percent of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the situation, nearly double the rate of people expressing positive views.
While only 5 percent of those polled said their confidence in the prime minister had increased, nearly half, or 48 percent to be exact, said the opposite.
While dealing with an outbreak of such an unknown virus inevitably involves a trial-and-error process, the people seem to be disgruntled with the series of haphazard and inconsistent policy decisions made by the Abe administration in handling the crisis.
Typical of the administration’s bungled responses is Abe’s initiative to distribute face masks to all households amid a serious shortage. The program was disrupted due to discoveries of quality problems and while time was wasted on recalling defective ones, masks started reappearing at retail stores.
In another example, the government retracted its decision to provide 300,000 yen ($2,780) to families suffering from falling incomes and then switched to handing out 100,000 yen in cash to every resident. Due to procedural confusion at municipal governments processing applications for the program, many of the people who have applied for the handouts have yet to receive the money.
Abe has also failed to send out strong messages that have struck a responsive chord in the hearts of the people. Only when he first declared the state of emergency did he report the measure to the Diet himself. He later left the task to his minister in charge.
At news conferences, he mostly read out prepared texts without speaking about his government actions in his own words.
Meanwhile, Abe tried but failed to push through a contentious initiative to revise the Public Prosecutors Office Law to extend the legal retirement ages of top public prosecutors, which was widely criticized for threatening the independence of public prosecutors.
That seems to suggest that Abe was unable to recognize what the public wanted from the government in response to the pandemic.
In explaining why the number of PCR tests was not increasing as the government had promised, Abe pointed out the “clogging” of the process of expediting tests. But we must point out the “clogging” of the process of his administration’s communication with the public.
GROWING IMPORTANCE OF POLITICAL DECISIONS
Before the declaration of the state of emergency, Abe abruptly called for voluntary restrictions on events and school closures nationwide without discussing these measures with experts advising the government.
After the declaration, however, Abe started describing measures taken as being based on advice from experts in what seemed to be attempts to shift the responsibility to them.
Abe appears to be shying away from performing the roles and responsibilities of the nation’s political leader, who should make policy decisions after listening to experts in various fields, explain the measures clearly and meticulously to the public, and then assume the responsibility for their consequences.
The biggest challenge for the government after lifting the state of emergency will be to engineer a solid economic recovery while continuing efforts to prevent the spread of the infection. Abe should really understand that this challenge will even more severely test the administration’s political prowess in integrating and incorporating experts’ views and opinions into an effective and coherent strategy.
Prefectural governors are supposed to issue specific requests for voluntary business suspensions and restrictions on outings according to the basic guidelines created by the central government. But many governors say this system obscures where the responsibility for the actions taken ultimately rests.
It is necessary to take this opportunity to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the central government and local administrations.
While the regular Diet session is scheduled to end in about three weeks, the ruling camp has no plan to extend the term.
In 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake created a national crisis, the regular Diet session was extended for months, effectively keeping the Diet working throughout the year.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which was cited as a reason for not extending the session, has been postponed to next year.
The Diet should remain in session at least for the time being to prepare for unexpected developments and monitor rigorously the government’s actions in response to the outbreak.