The government should take immediate measures, recognizing that there is a serious gap in containment measures.
A total of four people – two Japanese employees, an American civilian employee, and the civilian employee’s Japanese husband – were found to be infected with the new omicron variant of COVID-19 at the U.S. Marine Corps “Camp Hansen” in Okinawa Prefecture.
A cluster has recently developed at Camp Hansen, with 186 U.S. servicemembers having tested positive by Dec. 20. It is quite natural for the prefecture to see a connection between the two incidents.
The response of the U.S. military is inexplicable, however.
The U.S. military did not try to determine whether the infection was due to the omicron variant because there was no equipment for genomic analysis. The U.S. military refused Okinawa’s request for the provision of samples to the Japanese side, citing the protection of personal information. Samples will reportedly be sent to the home country for testing “if necessary,” but the omicron variant is a global concern. Isn’t it self-evident that testing is “necessary?”
The U.S. military emphasizes that its operations are safe, saying that “servicemembers’ activities are restricted and they have no contact with residents outside the base.” The four people who tested positive lived outside the base, however. To date, there have also been numerous cases where U.S. servicemembers did not follow the rules. It is natural that anxiety is spreading among the prefecture’s residents.
Okinawa prefecture is conducting PCR tests and calling for health monitoring of Japanese base workers, but these measures will not be truly effective unless the U.S. side takes similar actions. The U.S. military should cooperate as much as possible with Okinawa’s efforts, such as conducting epidemiological investigations on infection routes as well as genomic analysis.
The Japanese government’s stance is also called into question.
New entry of foreigners has been suspended in principle since the end of November 2021 with the aim of strengthening border measures, but domestic law does not apply to U.S. military personnel under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. The forces now in Camp Hansen entered Kadena Air Base directly from the U.S., and moved about Okinawa without undergoing Japan’s quarantine.
The U.S. servicemembers reportedly were vaccinated twice and tested negative before entering Japan. It is the responsibility of the Japanese government to confirm the facts, such as whether the servicemembers underwent quarantine.
This issue, like other concerns over U.S. military bases, is not just Okinawa’s problem. There have been cases of COVID-19 infections at U.S. military bases and delays in providing information to local governments in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. In 2020 the National Governors’ Association called for the Japanese government to be responsible for collecting and releasing information in an appropriate manner, in addition to requesting [the U.S. military’s] reinforcement of prevention measures.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu, who is also the minister in charge of mitigating the impact of U.S. Forces in Okinawa, said, “We will do our utmost to alleviate local anxiety” in response to this most recent outbreak. The lives and health of the people must be protected not only in words but also in actions.