Japan’s fifth wave of coronavirus infections is spreading with unprecedented force.
On Aug. 13, daily new coronavirus infections topped 20,000 across the nation for the first time. Over 30 prefectures are at the Stage 4 infection level — marked by an explosive rise in infections and high hospital bed occupancy rates, among other indicators. The government’s coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee is seeking a 50% reduction in trips outside for people in Tokyo, compared to pre-state of emergency levels.
Hospital bed numbers are under pressure, and many patients unable to be hospitalized are forced to recover at home. Treatment for conditions other than COVID-19 are being affected, and one expert went as far as to say, “We’re close to a disaster-level situation.”
Although the coronavirus is spreading worldwide, the severity of this country’s situation is down to the government’s enormous crisis management failures. The price of this failure is taking a heavy toll on Japan’s people.
The biggest problem is that, from the start of this pandemic, the government has persisted in an optimistic view of the situation and neglected prevention measures.
After the first wave of infections about a year ago, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe boasted, “I want to demonstrate the power of the Japanese model.” He was emphasizing Japan’s success in keeping the virus down through requests for self-restraint, rather than the heavy-handed lockdowns witnessed in the United States and Europe.
Might this experience have given birth to the government’s arrogance? Despite calls from local governments to codify provisions in the coronavirus special measures law, including for financial support for businesses cooperating with closure requests, the government did not investigate the possibility until the third wave last winter.
Meanwhile, the domestic tourism-boosting “Go To Travel” campaign originally planned for after the pandemic was brought forward. It sent the mistaken message that people were free to travel regardless of the increased infection risks their movements presented.
In this summer’s fifth wave of infections, assumptions that fewer severe cases would emerge due to the progress of vaccinations among elderly people meant the situation was underestimated.
Now infections are surging among unvaccinated generations, and instances of severe COVID-19 are rising especially fast in the 40s to 50s age bracket. There was no anticipation of the worst possible outcome — a fundamental part of crisis management.
The government does not acknowledge its own failure, and is trying to overcome the situation by achieving vaccination rates matching those in Europe and the U.S. But in those countries, too, inoculations for young people are not going as planned. There is also the possibility a variant emerges that vaccines are less effective against.
As long as the government doesn’t rethink its optimistic approach, its failures will repeat.
Their stance of disregarding the views of experts is also unchanged. This was brought to the fore again with the decision to go ahead with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee, said that holding the Games in a pandemic was “not normal,” and advised they should not have spectators. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was adamant on having audiences until the last moment.
The crisis management system is also insufficient.
Coronavirus policies, including bolstering the medical system, infection prevention measures and financial support, are spread across multiple ministries and agencies. The Cabinet Secretariat also has a crisis management group that includes infectious diseases in its remit, but it is not taking a leading role in the pandemic response. The reality is that there is currently no central decision-making body to comprehensively manage the government’s direction.
To quickly identify people who have come into close contact with infected persons and quell transmission, use of digital technology is indispensable. But in handing over responsibility entirely to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare — which has no such expertise — the technology’s potential is going untapped.
Relations with regional administrations are not smooth, either. In the infectious disease special measures law, the prime minister retains the right to decide which prefectures can be subject to state of emergency declarations, among other powers.
Conversely, requests for businesses to close and people to reduce their activities are left entirely to prefectural governors.
It is because of this that there have been clear instances of disagreement between the levels of government on the range of business closure requests. A unified approach is essential, and work should be done as soon as possible to create a system that can make the adjustments ahead of time.
Inside the government, there is a sense they are bereft of options. The view is that gaining understanding will be hard due to people being tired of self-restraint and that a sense of “being used to the coronavirus” has set in.
But what brought on this situation was the government’s mistakes in dealing with the crisis up to now. The people’s understanding is absolutely essential to crisis management, but the prime minister did not directly address people’s concerns.
Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University’s College of Risk Management, said of the government’s response, “They didn’t put forward a strategy including the goals it should achieve and a roadmap of how to reach them. They can’t review the current measures and decide what to implement next.”
Standing idly by will not protect the people’s health or their lives. The Japanese government must rebuild its coronavirus crisis management system, and put forward a clear strategy for the future.