BY TOMOHIRO OSAKI, STAFF WRITER
From free bath salt giveaways to shopping coupons and discounted taxi rides, municipalities across Japan are coming up with an array of incentive programs to not only prod residents into getting vaccinated against COVID-19, but to help revitalize struggling local businesses.
Japan isn’t alone in seeing efforts by authorities to coax the public into getting vaccinated.
In Israel, which has the highest vaccination rate in the world, a so-called Green Pass has been issued to those fully vaccinated as a ticket back to normalcy, granting its holders access to facilities such as gyms, hotels and theaters. China, too, is accelerating its inoculation campaign as some local governments offer those who have been vaccinated a range of sweeteners from free eggs to grocery discounts.
In Japan, some municipalities are taking the initiative in rolling out incentives. The central government remains more cautious, however, distancing itself from such policies so those unable to be vaccinated do not feel discriminated against.
The city of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, is planning to devise a system in which those vaccinated can show certificates to local stores and get discounts accordingly.
The city is preparing to convert two floors of a local department store into a mass vaccination site. In collaboration with the store, Saikaya, and other local businesses, Yokosuka is planning a citywide discount program catering to those who have received shots, in hopes of both pushing up overall inoculation rates and reinvigorating businesses reeling from the pandemic.
“Our hope is residents will find the discounts motivating enough to go get the shots,” said Ryosuke Hanaki, an official of the city’s public health department. “It could also help the local economy.”
Few details have been fleshed out, however. An initial vaccine supply shortage, Hanaki said, is expected to delay the start of vaccinations for the bulk of the city’s older population until mid-May, making the rollout of the discount program an even more distant prospect.
Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, meanwhile, is tying up with two drug firms headquartered in the ward, Earth Corp. and Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., to distribute free bath powders and bottles of soft drinks to older people who get vaccinated.
The city of Shizuoka, meanwhile, has announced it will subsidize taxi rides by older people to and from vaccination sites to the tune of ¥2,000 for each person. The initiative, Mayor Nobuhiro Tanabe said, is in part meant to “support the taxi industry going through a rough time amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
But such incentive campaigns have been met with resistance, too, with some questioning whether municipalities should be so gung-ho about promoting a public health program that typically has minor side-effects and is not available to everyone.
The town of Miyashiro, Saitama Prefecture, passed a supplementary budget bill Monday that included a plan to distribute ¥1,000 coupons to all of its 30,000 residents eligible for vaccination. The bill originally aimed higher, seeking to reward those vaccinated with coupons worth ¥2,000, but the amount was halved after the proposal was initially voted down.
“It’s true there are some folks who (originally) opposed the bill because they saw it as an attempt by us to use coupons to cajole the public into getting vaccinations despite there being a risk of side-effects,” an official at the town’s health center said, declining to be named.
“It goes without saying that everyone is free to make their own decisions about whether to get vaccinated or not, and that we don’t mean to force people to do anything,” she said.
The issue has been brought up in the Diet, too. Citing the example of Israel’s Green Pass, lawmaker Ai Aoki of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan told an Upper House committee in March that the issuance of “vaccine passports” could lead to those unable to get vaccinated being disadvantaged in society.
“I think the situation must be avoided at all costs where people without those certificates — or ‘passports’ — of vaccination will be discriminated against by being denied access to flights or events,” Aoki said.
In response, Taro Kono, state minister overseeing the vaccine rollout program, said he doesn’t intend to approve the creation of such certificates for domestic purposes, although he hinted that their use for international travel was possible if the global community shifts toward adopting such a system.
The health ministry, too, has no plans at the moment to award those inoculated with any preferential treatment on a national level, due to concerns a sense of unfairness could arise from such an arrangement, according to an official at the ministry’s Health Service Bureau who asked not to be named.
Aside from the fact that there are people who will opt not to get vaccinated, “we also need to consider those people who want to but can’t because they are too sick or allergic,” the official said.