The government on April 23 formally approved a third state of emergency in response to a fresh wave of COVID-19 cases, only a month or so after its previous curbs were lifted. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was forced to take action as the government’s new “manen boshi” (prevention of the spread) program of pre-emergency measures failed to contain cases in many parts of the nation.
New and more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus are running rampant to the point that fresh daily cases threaten to overwhelm health care systems in the Kansai region of western Japan.
The government has no choice but to sharply expand restrictions imposed on social and economic activities. Protecting lives has to be top policy priority.
The Suga administration also needs to offer more a detailed explanation about its decision based on scientific data. There is no guarantee that “short-term and intensive” measures will work as policymakers expect. This time around, the government should go all out to ensure the virus is brought under control once and for all, without sticking to the 17-day time limit it has set.
SHORT CUTS NOT THE ANSWER
The state of emergency, which is based on the special measures law to respond to the pandemic, covers Tokyo and the three western prefectures of Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto. Also, the scope of pre-emergency measures was expanded to cover seven prefectures after Ehime Prefecture joined the list, which already includes Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Aichi, Miyagi and Okinawa prefectures.
Unlike the earlier state of emergency, which focused on asking restaurants and bars to shorten their business hours, this one involves asking a wide range of businesses to suspend their operations. In addition to venues that offer alcoholic refreshments or karaoke services, businesses such as department stores, shopping centers and movie theaters are also targeted. No spectator will be allowed to attend any sports event in principle.
The government is focusing its efforts on curbing the traffic of people in public facilities and spaces rather than measures to reduce the risk of infections in such areas.
But this approach is likely to generate resentment and a sense of unfairness among businesses that have made conscientious efforts in the past year or so to prevent infections among staff members and customers while learning lessons from their missteps along the way.
The government’s action will not win broad public support unless the Suga administration offers a convincing explanation about the need for these steps and provides proper compensation for dented revenues.
It also must ensure that essential workers who provide health and nursing care and other indispensable services do not bear an unfair burden of stress and risk to their health.
For the previous two states of emergency, the period was initially set at one month. This time, the government has decided on a 17-day timeframe which will run from April 25 until May 11, saying it will take strong and intensive measures during the holiday-studded Golden week from late April to early May.
But many experts argue the 17-day timeframe is too short to contain the virus. Shigeru Omi, an infectious disease expert who heads the expert panel advising the government on policy responses to the pandemic, recently told the Diet that he thinks at least three weeks are needed.
MORE SERIOUS THAN THIRD WAVE
The government’s premature decision to lift the second state of emergency before new cases started dropping in significant numbers, coupled with the spread of new variants, has led to a fresh surge in infections, especially in the Kansai region around Osaka. The government needs to learn from this mistake.
Some new variants appear to be more infectious, deadly and capable of spreading among young people.
After making their presence felt in the Kansai region, new variants are emerging as the most common source of fresh infections in Tokyo. The much-awaited vaccination program has made little headway. Vaccinations of elderly people have only just begun, and many health care workers have yet to receive their jabs.
It should be recognized that the current fourth wave is more serious than the third.
When the second state of emergency ended, the government announced a set of new policy measures to prevent a resurgence of cases. However, it failed to ensure the measures were followed.
For instance, it set a daily target of 10,000 monitoring COVID-19 tests to detect signs of a resurgence. But the average number of such tests hovered around 1,000. The number rose recently, but only to slightly more than 2,000 in mid-April.
The government also promised to increase the number of screening tests to monitor the spread of new variants. But it is difficult to stem the expansion of infections from new variants now that they have taken hold.
It is obvious that easing strict restrictions on people’s lives tends to cause a sharp snapback in activity.
Policymakers need to keep this risk in mind as they try to figure out what level of decline in new cases needs to be achieved to bring infections to an acceptable level until the vaccination program kicks in. The government has a duty to set a clear target and map out a coherent strategy.
SUGA FAILING BADLY
Suga decided to lift the second state of emergency about a month ago, saying, “My responsibility is to work hard to make sure it will not be necessary to declare another state of emergency.” He bears grave responsible for the current mess.
In an April 23 news conference, Suga offered his “heart-felt apologies” for re-imposing a state of emergency, having left decisions concerning quasi-emergency steps to prefectural governors while doing little to ask the public for its full cooperation to avoid another round of curbs. He could have done this by using news conferences and other ways to keep the public clued in.
Numerous people have complained that it is hard to understand the differences between past requests for voluntary restrictions on various activities and the “man-en boshi” pre-emergency measures. Suga’s approach deserves to be criticized for effectively undermining the importance of the newly introduced program.
When asked about his responsibility for failing to rein in infections, Suga said the number of new cases in Miyagi Prefecture has started falling. As for the wisdom of his decision to terminate the second state of emergency, he only pointed out that there were no recognized threats from new variants in Osaka or Hyogo prefectures at that time.
Suga’s remarks in recent weeks have not portrayed a leader firmly committed to his responsibility for tackling this health care crisis or determined to work with the public to overcome the challenges with a shared sense of urgency.
With regard to the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for this summer, Suga said the International Olympic Committee has already decided to hold the event. But he offered no convincing explanation about how the Games can be held safely.
Policy decisions concerning the pandemic have a direct bearing on people’s lives and livelihoods. They should never be influenced by political motives.
–The Asahi Shimbun, April 24