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Editorial: Punishment plan is a misguided approach to curb virus infections

  • January 16, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 12:29 p.m.
  • English Press

The government is considering a flurry of revisions to laws to enhance its policy responses to the latest wave of new coronavirus infections.

 

Emerging details of the planned legal changes indicate the government is seeking to shift the blame for the current situation to the public and force compliance while shutting its eyes to its own policy failures and misguided decisions.

 

One common thread running through all the measures under consideration is a strong-arm approach designed to compel people to follow requests and instructions from authorities with the threat of punishment.

 

A revision to the special measures law to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, would empower prefectural governors to request or order businesses and facilities to change their business hours as “preventive measures,” even in places where a state of emergency has yet to be issued. The revision would also introduce a provision to impose an administrative fine on businesses and facilities that do not comply.

 

The government has good reason to try to enhance the effectiveness of administrative requests and orders for containing the virus.

 

But in reality, restaurants, bars and other small businesses struggling to survive this pandemic have no choice but to operate as usual to avoid bankruptcy.

 

The government must first ensure adequate support to businesses that have suffered declines in revenue due to closures and shorter operating hours so that their owners can feel secure about their livelihoods. The government should make an official commitment to such aid by writing it into the law.

 

But the government-drafted revision only refers to such support as a policy target that national and local governments are obliged to make a sincere effort to achieve.

 

This plan reflects grossly misplaced priorities. The government needs to reconsider the entire plan from the viewpoint of how to win understanding and support from struggling small businesses.

 

The proposed revision to the infectious disease law would mete out criminal punishment to people who refuse to answer inquiries from public health centers, provide false information or reject recommendations to be hospitalized. They could face prison terms and criminal fines.

 

It is crucial, of course, to trace contacts made by infected people and their sources of infection. But information about when and where a person has met with whom has a lot to do with the privacy of the person.

 

Using the threat of criminal punishment to extract such information from citizens would significantly change the nature of surveys based on public trust and could make it even more difficult to obtain their cooperation.

 

In some parts of the nation, the number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases is growing at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to conduct necessary epidemiological studies. In such areas, public health authorities are having a hard time finding medical facilities that can accept patients who need hospitalization. There is no compelling case for introducing criminal punishment for such noncompliance. 

 

The government has failed to disclose specific data on the number of people who have refused to answer questions or be hospitalized, as well as those who have gone out without notice. There is also scant data on the reasons behind these cases and what kind of disruptive effects they have caused.

 

The attempt to introduce criminal penalties for noncompliance will not lead to reasonable debate or broad social acceptance unless the government offers convincing explanations about the need for such measures to curb infections.

 

Japan has a history of serious human rights violations related to infectious diseases, including forced isolation of leprosy patients at special facilities.

 

The medical community issued an emergency statement on Jan. 14, saying public understanding and cooperation are vital for containing infectious diseases and warning that forceful measures could do more harm than good.

 

The government should pay sincere attention to this message from the front line of efforts to contain the public health crisis.

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