TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday (Apr 7) declared a state of emergency to fight new COVID-19 infections in major population centres, and unveiled a stimulus package he described as among the world's biggest to soften the economic blow.
Abe announced the state of emergency targeting the capital Tokyo and six other prefectures - accounting for about 44 per cent of Japan's population - for a period of about one month.
The other affected regions are neighbouring Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, the western hub of Osaka and neighbouring Hyogo, and the southwestern region of Fukuoka.
"We have decided to declare a state of emergency because we've judged that a fast spread of the coronavirus nationwide would have an enormous impact on lives and the economy," he told parliament earlier.
"The most important thing now is for each citizen to change our actions," Abe said in televised comments made at a meeting of a government task force.
"If each of us can reduce contact with other people by at least 70 per cent, and ideally by 80 per cent, we should be able to see a peak in the number of infections in two weeks," he said.
His Cabinet will also finalise the stimulus package worth 108 trillion yen (US$990 billion) - equal to 20 per cent of Japan's economic output - to cushion the impact of the epidemic on the world's third-largest economy.
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That exceeds the 11 per cent of US output for the stimulus package laid out by President Donald Trump and 5 per cent of output for Germany's package.
In the package, the government referred to the pandemic as the "biggest crisis" the global economy has faced since World War II.
Abe said direct fiscal spending would amount to 39 trillion yen, or 7 per cent of the economy, more than double the amount Japan spent following the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Japan has been spared the big outbreaks of the coronavirus seen in other global hot spots, but a recent, steady rise in infections in Tokyo, Osaka and other areas led to growing calls for Abe to announce a state of emergency.
"WE WILL BEAT THE VIRUS"
Coronavirus infections in Tokyo more than doubled to about 1,200 in the past week, with more than 80 new ones reported on Tuesday, accounting for the highest number in the country. Nationwide, cases have climbed past 4,000 with 93 deaths as of Monday.
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The emergency gives governors the authority to call on people to stay at home and businesses to close. With no penalties for ignoring the requests in most cases, enforcement will rely more on peer pressure and respect for authority.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said the city was in talks with the central government to decide what types of facilities it would ask to close or curtail business hours, while reiterating there would be no restrictions on buying groceries and medicine.
"It may cause inconvenience in daily life, but I call for everyone's cooperation because lives are at stake," Koike told reporters earlier.
Abe has stressed that the state of emergency will stop short of imposing a formal lockdown as seen in other countries.
"Although a state of emergency is declared, it won't mean a city lockdown as seen overseas," he said, pledging public transport would run as normal and roads would not be blocked.
Abe also urged the Japanese people to draw on the sense of togetherness seen after the country's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011.
"We are again facing a great difficulty. However, if we work together once again with hope, we will rise to the challenge and move forward," he said.
"We will beat the virus, we will defeat the virus and we can overcome the ordeal of this state of emergency."
Essential infrastructure like rail services, mail and utilities would operate, as will ATMs and banks, public broadcaster NHK said.
Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Taku Eto called on shoppers to stay calm.
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"We are asking citizens to buy only what they need when they need it as there is sufficient food supply and no suspension is planned at food factories," he told reporters earlier, adding there was no sign of disruption to Japan's grain imports.
But the restrictions will add to pains the virus is inflicting on the world's third-largest economy, which is seen as already in recession as supply chain disruptions and travel bans chill factory output and consumption.
Metropolitan Tokyo alone accounts for about 20 per cent of Japan's overall gross domestic product.
Japan will sell a record amount of additional bonds worth more than 18 trillion yen to fund the package, adding to its huge debt which is twice the size of its economy.
While the stimulus could ease the immediate damage from the pandemic, lawmakers are already calling for even bigger spending to prevent bankruptcies and job losses.
Analysts expect the economy, which shrank in the final quarter of last year, to post two more quarters of contraction, piling pressure on the government and the central bank to do more.
"The government will probably compile another supplementary budget soon to stimulate the economy with even more spending," said Takahide Kiuchi, a former Bank of Japan board member who is now an economist at Nomura Research Institute.
Abe also announced that in a bid to ease the pressure on hospitals, those with mild symptoms will be treated in hotels and other facilities - including some that were to be used for this year's now-postponed Olympic Games.
The government has also pledged to step up testing capacity and the number of beds and ventilators available to treat those in serious condition.