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Japan enters a new stage of the pandemic fraught with fresh challenges



Japan has begun a new chapter of the pandemic — albeit one fraught with fresh challenges — after national coronavirus countermeasures were lifted completely for the first time in nearly half a year.


Over the next month, prefectural governors will take charge of gradually peeling back measures to prevent a viral rebound, while the central government, under new leadership, shifts its focus toward booster shots as it initiates the trial phase of its pandemic exit strategy.


This isn’t the country’s first attempt to revive the economy following a bout with the virus. But with more than 60% of the population fully vaccinated, a heated debate over the need for additional doses, the proliferation of the delta variant and the appointment Monday of a new prime minister, the coming weeks could bring a sea of change.


“October is a transition period,” said Koji Wada, a professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare and a member of the health ministry’s expert panel on the coronavirus.


“As people become restless and therefore more active, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous for those who haven’t been vaccinated yet,” he said. “Vaccinating the public is the most effective way to prevent future waves.”


On Thursday, a state of emergency active in 19 prefectures and quasi-emergency measures active in eight all expired.


This is the first time since early April that the country isn’t under active national coronavirus countermeasures. It’s also the first time a state of emergency has been lifted all at once — as opposed to incrementally in certain areas — or without the use of quasi-emergency measures, which aim to prevent a resurgence of the virus.


While it’s widely believed that vaccines helped stifle the fifth wave, new outbreaks will almost surely emerge.


Changing the minds of those who are hesitant or unwilling to get vaccinated is a key pillar of the central government’s plan to reboot the economy. Once the plan goes into operation, the government will no longer discourage those who have been vaccinated or can prove they are not infected from traveling, dining out or attending public events.


While this carrot-and-stick approach — which is similar to what’s happening in the U.S. and France — could entice people to get their shots and help the battered economy in one fell swoop, the plan relies heavily on local businesses and their willingness to play along.


According to the government’s exit strategy, restaurants and bars — which had been asked to close by 8 p.m. and stop serving alcohol wherever a state of emergency or quasi-emergency measures were in place — will be able to stay open until 9 p.m. and serve alcohol, so long as they follow basic precautions.


The sale of alcohol will be allowed during business hours but governors will still have the final say, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the country’s pandemic response, said last week.


Governors will also oversee any measures pertaining to travel and public events for the rest of October.


For large-scale events, attendance limits will be raised from 5,000 people or 50% of venue capacity to 10,000.


When the exit strategy was teased last month, the central government hinted that business owners could offer coupons, discounts or special access to customers who can prove they’ve been inoculated or tested negative.


Similar documentation — officials call it a “vaccine test package” — could be required at hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities, and for activities like domestic travel, attending public events or participating in school activities.


Vaccine passports could also play a role, but the plausibility of the plan remains dubious.


“Requiring a vaccine passport or the vaccine test package when boarding a plane might make sense, but demanding the same thing from passengers getting on a public bus or bullet train — perhaps not so much,” Wada said.


“This time should be spent figuring out what these systems and processes will look like, not just in the short term but for the foreseeable future.”


The crux of the problem is that the country’s COVID-19 countermeasures are largely voluntary, and in most cases carry no monetary, civil or criminal penalties.


Only under a state of emergency and after repeated violations can a municipality take a business to court, which then decides whether a fine is warranted.


Subsidies have been provided for businesses complying with infectious disease protocols, but in theory they can operate as usual and welcome as many customers as they like.


Meanwhile, public officials can’t impose restrictions on individual behavior even under a state of emergency. Reducing foot traffic has been a headache in highly populated cities and prefectures, where the virus can find a foothold before spreading elsewhere.


“I don’t know how much of the voluntary measures will stick,” said Kenneth McElwain, a professor with the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science. “I think people want to go out and they’re going to go out.”


The outgoing Suga administration’s exit strategy aims to restore public morale, reignite the economy and incentivize vaccinations by easing restrictions to make it easier for inoculated people to travel, dine out or attend big events.


But in a country where the Constitution strictly protects individual rights even during a crisis, the prime minister’s popularity can influence the willingness of the people to comply with voluntary countermeasures.


Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saw his level of support wane since taking office in September 2020. The oscillating power balance between the central government and prefectures caused the prime minister to clash periodically with some governors, many of whom enjoy high levels of local support.


Suga’s successor, Fumio Kishida — who is set to formally take the reins on Monday — will ascend to the country’s top office at a precarious time.


Japan lies at a crossroads as it recovers from the fifth wave of the virus while implementing an exit strategy with no expiration date. Experts are also warning of another wave in the winter — as was the case last year — when families and friends tend to gather indoors.


The government has begun shifting its attention to booster shots.


The central government announced late last month that the country will begin administering booster shots to medical personnel by the end of the year, and to older people in the new year. With Suga having promised that all willing recipients will be fully inoculated by the end of November, it’s unclear how the country will overcome vaccine hesitancy before booster shots begin.


Supplementary doses themselves have proved controversial. The World Health Organization called for a moratorium on boosters, urging wealthier countries to hold off until the end of the year and instead provide poorer countries with more shots.


Kishida, for his part, has said a combination of greater incentives, strong COVID-19 policies and more help for struggling businesses and individuals will help Japan overcome the economic woes of the pandemic.


Sometimes a country needs a powerful leader during a crisis, but McElwain is doubtful the Kishida administration will bring that quality to office.


“Kishida is not a particularly charismatic person … but people trust him simply because he’s not Suga,” he said. “My bet is that he’ll stay the course.”

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