OSAKA: The biggest problem in Japan is that nobody knows how widespread the COVID-19 outbreak has become when numbers no longer provide an accurate gauge of the situation.
With about 256 infected patients in Japan as of Mar 2, excluding those infected onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, these figures do not signal cause for alarm at first sight.
Yet, factor in the knowledge that Japan is not testing as much, one cannot escape the nauseating feeling the country has a much higher number of hidden cases waiting to bubble to the surface.
JAPAN IS STILL UNSURE HOW BAD THE OUTBREAK IS
South Korea has emerged the country with the highest number outside China, after infection cases skyrocketed last week. The country had come under fire for lax hospital rules on patient movement in the initial stages of the outbreak, leading to one super-spreader event at a Shincheonji church.
But South Korea has ramped up countermeasures including testing, making rapid diagnostic tests available at 50 healthcare facilities in the second week of February, with over 85,000 tested.
Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them
In contrast, Japan has administered a paltry number of 2,517 tests, which includes 829 tests of those extricated from Wuhan.
News of a man from Taiwan with symptoms, believed to have contracted the disease on his travel to Osaka from Feb 17 to 22, have fuelled criticism against what has been characterised as an overly cautious and insufficiently aggressive approach by Japanese officials, and growing concerns that opacity masks the true scale of the outbreak in the country.
Such suspicions are not helped by reports of doctors complaining that requests to test patients are frequently rejected by health centres and more of patients with pneumonia symptoms similarly turned down when they ask for the test.
To ease the pressure off the public healthcare system, the Japanese government has announced plans for the national health insurance plan to cover COVID-19 tests soon so doctors can order tests directly from the private healthcare providers. Should that happen, we can expect a surge in the numbers, seeing that most patients who have contracted the virus have only mild symptoms.
But this has implications for Japan’s national response to the virus, which will most certainly demand more robust disease management measures, which may be too little too late.
CURIOUS SCHOOL CLOSURES
With one eye on legacy building as his term as Prime Minister concludes in September 2021, Shinzo Abe has sensed a shift in the national mood and knows some form of swift, decisive action must be taken to demonstrate leadership in a time of crisis. But what?
And so he has called for school closures beginning Monday (Mar 2), an unprecedented move which has been met not with warm reception but outrage when parents, local governments and school administrators, who said they had not been consulted, were caught by surprise.
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This all feels like a stab in the COVID-19 dark. And if the goal was to protect children, why leave out nurseries, kindergartens and after-school facilities?
While a common move across Asia during this COVID-19 outbreak to protect vulnerable children from the spread of the virus, including China, Hong Kong and parts of South Korea, the thing is Japan has not yet reached a national consensus on how severe the national situation is.
This measure increasingly seems like knee-jerk reaction when Prime Minister Abe could have done better in explaining to Japanese families the outlook for the country and rationale for the move but did not. His move also gained little support among experts.
Infectious disease specialists, like Head of the Kawasaki City Health and Safety Research Centre Nobuhiko Okabe and Masaki Yoshida, professor at the Jikei University School of Medicine who chairs the Japanese Society for Infection Prevention and Control, expressed skepticism over the decision to impose a uniform closure of schools, which did not consider differentiated regional infection levels and whether schools have seen clusters.
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Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda had earlier floated the idea in mid-February to move up the two-week spring vacation and contain the closing to schools to regions with many cases for a limited two-week duration, which is a far cry from the call for a month-long closure for primary, junior high and high-schools made by Prime Minister Abe.
One wonders whether the International Olympic Committee’s reported comments that they were considering cancellation of the Tokyo Summer Olympics the day before had any bearing.
A LOT AT STAKE DURING A CRITICAL PERIOD
At a time a Japanese expert advisory panel said will be critical for containment efforts, such uncoordinated and unconsulted moves by the Japanese authorities to deal with the outbreak can be counter-productive.
Prime Minister Abe no doubt feels a great sense of responsibility, in stressing that the direction was his own and emphasising the political leadership’s duty to stay on top of the situation during the Lower House Budget Committee session on Thursday.
But his sudden announcement has created one of the biggest logistical nightmares for some 13 million children who attend elementary, junior and senior high schools and schools for special-needs across the nation.
Teachers also have to grapple with new school plans, now that term exams and graduation to be brought forward.
Dual-income families, non-regular-hour working parents and single parents have to work out alternative childcare arrangements, including possibly staying at home and foregoing income.
AILING POLITICAL TRUST
It did not help that Prime Minister Abe’s subsequent press conference was a scripted one where he read answers to a selected list of pre-submitted questions from a teleprompter lasting only 30 minutes.
His clarification that he would set up a reserve fund of 270 billion yen (US$2.5 billion), without further details on what specific steps the government would take if the situation worsened only stoked fears that the government would again roll out new, disruptive plans that would leave healthcare experts, parents and the public caught on the backfoot.
Many journalists still had questions but the press conference was called to an abrupt end. Public calls for accountability have mushroomed. On that same night, the hastag #AbeYamero (Resign Abe) was tweeted more than 350,000 times.
READ: Japan draws criticism over response to coronavirus-stricken cruise ship
A mood of frustration hangs over Japan. People are watching the Abe administration with hopes for a sign that the government will take bold steps to restore public confidence but have been met with patchwork policy and spotty disclosures over internal considerations to key decisions, this latest announcement for school closures being one.
The least Abe and his administration could do is take questions during the press conference to demonstrate sincerity in tackling worries.
Fortunately, many mayors and municipal governors have seized the initiative to disseminate information and take decisive action to reassure their constituents. Declaring a state of emergency, the Hokkaido governor Naomichi Suzuki decided to close all schools days before Abe’s decision. Naomichi also declared a state of emergency and asked residents to remain indoors over the weekend.
After the press conference, Wakayama, which has seen three more cases last week, said it would focus on early detection and treatment instead.
Perhaps this differentiated approach among individual prefactures is the best way forward. But that carries greater indictment of the Japanese government more than surges in the number of cases do.
Yuka Hasegawa is a researcher who writes on social issues and politics in Japan.