Morning Alert   -   Thursday, August 19, 2021
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Broadcasters gave top play to reports on the record 23,917 new COVID-19 cases confirmed nationwide on Wednesday, including 5,386 in Tokyo (NHK, NTV), hospital beds secured for seriously ill COVID-19 patients quickly filling up despite efforts to increase the number of beds (TBS), the death of a woman in her 40s in Tokyo who tested positive for COVID-19 and was recuperating at home together with her husband and child who had also tested positive for the virus (Fuji TV), and Tokyo assembly member Kinoshita Fumiko, who caused an accident while driving without a license and has been absent from assembly meetings ever since (TV Asahi).

Lead items in national dailies included the Suga administration’s plan to update the criteria for declaring a COVID-19 state of emergency, a senior Taliban official’s remarks calling for national reconciliation, a Japanese drug firm’s plan to launch a clinical test of its COVID-19 vaccine in Southeast Asia, and Health Ministry data suggesting that telemedicine is not being widely used in Japan.


Daily tally of COVID-19 cases hits record high on Wednesday

All national papers wrote that a record 23,916 people tested positive for the novel coronavirus across the nation yesterday, more than 3,000 higher than the previous record marked on Aug. 13. The numbers of new cases hit record highs in 27 prefectures, including Osaka (2,296), Fukuoka (1,253), Aichi (1,227), and Hyogo (1,088). GOJ coronavirus taskforce subcommittee Chairman Omi indicated at the Diet yesterday that the actual number of cases is probably much higher, citing a shortage of PCR diagnostic tests.

According to the Health Ministry coronavirus advisory board, the seven-day average of the number of new cases per 100,000 people as of Aug. 17 exceeded 25, the level that warrants the issuance of a state of emergency, in 40 of the 47 prefectures, including in Okinawa (312) and Tokyo (228). The board members reportedly concluded that the Delta strain now accounts for almost 90% of all new cases. About 3% of the 57,283 people who tested positive for the virus nationwide from Aug. 10-12 were fully vaccinated. One board member reportedly estimated that hospital beds for seriously ill patients in Tokyo will remain almost fully occupied through October even if the upward trajectory turns downward immediately.

Yomiuri noted that hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are filling quickly and hospital admissions have plunged steeply in the face of the weeks-long surge in infections. As more than 60,000 people are currently recuperating at home in the Tokyo metropolitan area alone, calls are mounting among physicians in the field for the GOJ to prepare for the swift launch of “field hospitals” tasked exclusively with administering antibody cocktails to patients with mild symptoms.

GOJ to revise criteria for declaring state of emergency

Mainichi and Yomiuri wrote in their top articles that the GOJ is set to amend the existing criteria for issuing a COVID-19 state of emergency, conjecturing that hospital bed occupancy and hospital admission rates, rather than the number of cases, will be the key factors in view of the fact that the proportion of seriously ill patients among virus carriers has dropped sharply due to the vaccine rollout. “What is important is to protect people’s health and lives,” a GOJ source was quoted as saying. “We will attach more importance to the status of hospital occupancy.” Experts on the coronavirus taskforce subcommittee will discuss how the criteria should be revised ahead of Sept. 12, when the ongoing state of emergency is set to end.

Few physicians in Japan use telemedicine

Nikkei’s lead story said that according to data obtained from the Health Ministry, telemedicine was only used some 2,400 times per month nationwide on average during the first quarter of this year, making up less than 0.1% of all the consultations between doctors and patients. While noting that some physicians, including Japan Medical Association members, are not very enthusiastic about online consultations because they are concerned about the possibility of being sued for malpractice or the consultation videos being leaked, the daily said the need for telemedicine is higher than ever now that the number of COVID-19 patients recuperating at home is rising steadily due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

Suga calls for 70% reduction in number of train commuters

All national papers reported that Prime Minister Suga met with Keidanren Chairman Tokura yesterday and asked for cooperation to reduce the number of train commuters by 70% by increasing telework as much as possible in order to rein in the fifth wave of the coronavirus.

GOJ cautious about legislation on city lockdown

Yomiuri reported on the gap between the Suga administration and public health experts, the opposition bloc, and the prefectural governors over how to combat the novel coronavirus, noting that the GOJ is hesitant to heed the latter group’s call for legislating a lockdown. Prime Minister Suga, Health Minister Tamura, and other senior officials have voiced reluctance by citing difficulties in enlisting public understanding for such legislation, which they stress will significantly restrict civil liberties. Suga has noted that the situations in other countries have shown that vaccination is the “decisive factor” in combating the virus and not city lockdowns.


Defense Ministry to hold off on seeking funding for Aegis Ashore alternative

Asahi front-paged the revelation by a GOJ source that the Defense Ministry has decided not to seek funding in the next fiscal year for its plan to build destroyers equipped with the Aegis Ashore missile interceptor system on account of the need to conduct additional research on cost and operation. There is a growing consensus within the ministry that seeking budget allocation will be difficult even in FY2023, with some projecting it will not happen until FY2025 at the earliest. As it will take at least five years to construct a destroyer even if the project is financed, the daily forecast that the Aegis Ashore replacement will not be rolled out at least until the early 2030s, almost 10 years later than the ministry’s original plan. The paper added that the prolonged absence of an alternative Aegis Ashore platform will continue to put strain on the operations of the existing fleet of MSDF Aegis warships.


Suga decides not to call snap election ahead of LDP presidential race

Mainichi asserted in a front-page story that Prime Minister Suga has decided not to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election before Sept. 17, when the campaign period for the LDP presidential election is expected to begin, based on the assessment that holding a national election amid the fifth wave of COVID-19 would be difficult. As he is now reportedly confident about securing support for his reelection bid from former Prime Minister Abe and others, the premier has concluded that he will be able to prevail in the LDP race even in the absence of an LDP victory in the Lower House election.

GOJ gives up on tapping ex-MIT official as head of Digital Agency

According to all national papers, the GOJ has decided not to appoint former MIT Media Lab Director Ito Joichi as the top official of the soon-to-be-launched Digital Agency in response to opposition from ruling coalition Diet members. The politicians have allegedly taken issue with the prominent IT mogul’s dubious connections with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.


One out of four Japanese firms fails to check business connections in Xinjiang

Sankei published the results of its survey of 118 major Japanese companies on their business operations in Xinjiang, China, noting that some 25% of them said they had not checked whether they were conducting business with local firms involved in human rights violations or forced labor. Slightly over half said they had found no problematic business connections there. However, about 23% refused to answer whether or not they had conducted a probe into their trade, if any, with local businesses.

Some 40 Chinese trawlers operating near Senkakus

Sankei wrote that the Japan Coast Guard confirmed yesterday that approximately 40 Chinese fishing vessels were operating in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. The fishing season in the area started on Aug. 16. The number of trawlers spotted around the disputed outcrops on Wednesday was almost the same as in the previous two years. Chinese fishing outside the territorial waters around the deserted islets is legal under a bilateral fisheries agreement.


Public health experts were warned against “making waves” over Olympics

Mainichi front-paged a finding that an unnamed LDP politician well-versed in health and welfare issues phoned epidemiologists and other public health professionals on the GOJ coronavirus taskforce in early June and pressed them “not to make waves” over the Tokyo Olympics by saying that the Games would be held no matter what. The influential lawmaker reportedly reached out to the experts just when they were drafting a recommendation against hosting the international sporting event amid the coronavirus pandemic. While noting that other LDP Diet members also contacted them and asked them not to participate in the drafting process, one of the taskforce members said they were exposed to “extremely inappropriate pressure” and that he felt “scientists’ right to free speech was not ensured.”

U.S. Embassy Tokyo Media Analysis and Translation Team