Less than a week after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and three adjacent prefectures amid surging COVID-19 cases, the government on Jan. 13 expanded the scope to cover seven other prefectures, including Osaka, Aichi and Fukuoka.
Taken in response to growing pressure from local governments that have been alarmed by the dire prospects of hospitals being overwhelmed by a swelling wave of new coronavirus patients, the latest government action came across as a mere ad-hoc measure.
The Suga administration has been going all out to prevent the spread of the virus without choking the economy. That is why the administration was reluctant to suspend the government’s Go To Travel tourism promotion campaign for the entire nation.
Despite a nationwide increase in new cases, the administration initially limited the state of emergency to the Tokyo metropolitan area and focused related restrictions on shorter business hours at restaurants, bars and other eating and drinking establishments, which are regarded as high-risk facilities.
This signals the administration’s desire to limit the economic damage as much as possible.
But the situation clearly demands all-out efforts by the government focused narrowly on stemming the spread of infections. The government cannot make the public aware of the urgency of the situation if it continues responding to the crisis only with half-hearted measures.
One example of the administration’s weak response is its call for avoiding nonessential outings.
In a Jan. 7 news conference to announce the state of emergency, Suga repeatedly stressed the need to avoid going out for nonessential reasons “after 8 p.m.” His remarks may have been interpreted as saying people do not have to worry about outings during other hours.
In a Jan. 13 news conference to announce the expansion of the measure, Suga stressed that the stay-home call also applies to daytime hours. But the call came too late.
In the Tokyo metropolitan area, which has been under the state of emergency for about a week, the numbers of people in shopping districts, train stations and other public places have generally declined, but not as sharply as after the first state of emergency was declared last spring.
One reason is probably that this time the government is not calling on a wide range of public facilities to close. But this means the public is not sufficiently conscious of the seriousness of the situation.
Experts have yet to fully understand the reasons for the spurt in new COVID-19 cases in the first two weeks of the new year. Some argue that trips to return home and dining out during the year-end and New Year holidays alone cannot explain the new surge.
That makes it all the more important for the central and local governments to take necessary actions as quickly as possible according to proactive, rather than reactive, plans based on the assumption that the worst could happen.
It goes without saying that in doing so the authorities need to send out clear and convincing messages that reflect the views and opinions of experts.
Suga pledged to bring this new wave of infections under control in one month “without fail.” But it is difficult to credit him for offering specific ideas about how this is possible. Many Japanese are not ready to buy into what he has to say.
It is probably impossible for the nation to ride out this crisis unless the people are willing to place faith in the prime minister’s words and the government’s policies.
Some local governments other than the 11 prefectures that have been covered by the state of emergency are also lobbying the national government to add their regions to the list.
The Suga administration needs to rebuild its systems and strategy for dealing with the pandemic to work more closely with experts and local governments and make every possible effort in a timely manner to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 14