OSAKA: A piece of shocking news came a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the reluctant announcement to delay the Tokyo Olympics.
Last Wednesday (Mar 25), the city of Tokyo reported 41 new infections, more than double the 17 the day before. Among them, more than 10 were unlinked cases.
In response to the situation, Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, who earlier mentioned the possibility of a city lockdown barely a week ago, sounded a further alarm bell when she said “we are in critical phase” of the outbreak.
She implored citizens to work from home, not to go out at night during weekdays, and refrain from leaving the house during the weekend if possible.
READ: Commentary: Why Japan’s move to close schools during COVID-19 outbreak upset many – and not just parents
GROWING CALLS FOR A LOCKDOWN
The growing severity facing the city was underscored again on Sunday (Mar 28) after 68 new COVID-19 infections were confirmed in Tokyo, following 63 on Saturday.
Monday seemed to bring a breath of fresh air when only 13 cases were reported, but offered false relief when hospitals that administer the swab test, the most commonly used COVID-19 detection method in Japan, typically close on Sundays, a hypothesis borne out when 20 more cases were later reported at the Haneda airport on that same day.
By Tuesday, numbers continue to surge, with Tokyo reporting 78 cases and seven deaths, marking the biggest jump in the COVID-19 situation in the country. There are mounting calls to lock down Tokyo but that option was unequivocally ruled out by authorities on Tuesday.
This week also marked a turning point in Japan’s battle against the coronavirus, as the nation was gripped by news that Ken Shimura, a veteran comedian and a household name in Japan for 50 years, died of COVID-19.
His passing has been mourned by many Japanese families, who felt as if they had lost somebody close in their lives, and raised huge public fear over the pandemic.
The question is how severe the Japanese situation is right now, and what measures must kick in to stem the spread, protect people and avoid healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.
But with very few available swab testing compare to other countries, does the country even know where it stands?
DIFFERING ASSESSMENTS OF THE OUTBREAK SEVERITY
The problem is the little consensus on the way forward.
Although Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told a press conference on Friday Tokyo faced the potential of an explosive rise in the number of infections and is entering a critical stage in its fight against COVID-19, embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged the government’s approach would “instantly fall apart” if the number of cases soar yet explicitly ruled out declaring a state of emergency the following day, a stance he reiterated at an Upper House committee meeting on Wednesday.
READ: Japan expands ban on visitors as COVID-19 cases climb
Under a state of emergency, prefectural governors are vested with powers to ensure residents stay inside, and can call for the temporary closures or downscaling of schools, offices and other public facilities. Prefecture authorities can also take certain enforcement actions in cases of non-compliance, and expropriate land to build temporary medical facilities.
Some have accused Ms Koike, once seen as the most likely candidate to be Japan’s first female prime minister, of populism and fear-mongering. But her calls for stiffer action to be taken finds resonance with experts.
Satoshi Kamayachi, an executive board member of the Japanese Medical Association who serves on a government expert panel on COVID-19, called on Abe to act decisively on Tuesday (Mar 31) after citing that almost all members of his panel had agreed it was time to call for a state of emergency.
“I personally feel it’s time for Japan to make the declaration and devise measures based on that,” he told reporters. “If we wait until an explosive increase in infections before declaring an emergency, it will be too late.”
Hiroshi Oshitani, another panel expert and professor of virology at Tohoku University, added that “if the unlinked cases surpasses 20, that is the end” in an interview with national broadcaster NHK earlier on Mar 22.
Hiroshi Nishiura, another expert panel and a professor who specialises in statistical modeling of infectious diseases at Hokkaido University, suggested the country can seize back control of the situation if the potential spread at night scenes including bars, nightclubs and karaoke places.
Even then, he acknowledged that the confirmed cases were only a tip of the iceberg but urged officials to look at other signals for a potential swell in the outbreak, such as through tracking patient calls to public health consultation centres.
SELF-ISOLATION WITHOUT COMPENSATION
Japanese authorities may have moved swiftly to address the press after last week’s sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 infections in Tokyo, but both have failed to give people sufficient assurance that the Japanese government is in full command and control of the situation.
More worryingly, both PM Abe and Ms Koike have relied on appeals for people to exercise personal restraint to stay indoors and refrain from going outside to curb a further spread.
PM Abe, in particular, has chosen to focus on the economic costs of greater restrictions, stressing the importance of keeping culture, art and sports alive, and highlighting how difficult filling a government deficit with taxes will be in his press conference. His call for people to stay in has come under fire after a picture of his wife with friends enjoying the sakura trees after a meal went viral.
Ms Koike’s request for people not to go to bars, nightclubs, karaoke studios, or live music studios has likewise depended on moral suasion and further ignores the potential impact on these businesses, when the government has not offered assistance or compensation.
Banking on people’s good intentions, instead of outlining clear guidelines and ensuring hot spots are tackled right away, is not the most effective or sustainable way to respond at this pivotal juncture in the crisis.
READ: Commentary: Partying and picnicking with friends? Your complacency this COVID-19 outbreak is misplaced
POOR COMMUNICATIONS IN A TIME OF CRISIS
Japan yearns for strong, decisive leadership to help citizens ride out this atmosphere of panic, but that is lacking both in action and in words.
Much of this vacillating attitude, seen in the huge, initial reluctance to cancel the Tokyo Olympics, and explains much of the nation’s half-hearted COVID-19 response, has also manifested in its weak public communications.
In all of PM Abe’s three press conferences on COVID-19, he falls back on the safety of a long, prepared speech displayed on prompters on his sides, which he reads from, only answering pre-submitted questions with ironed-out answers from a podium.
This stands in stark contrast to leaders in other countries who take charge of the situation to speak directly to their people, using their own words to give clarity to the evolving situation, outline trade-offs, and answer tough questions on the spot.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was just last week sitting in a chair when he took questions from reporters and spoke about the outbreak in a calm manner.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel pleading with her people to exercise reason and discipline, drawing from her experience growing up in East Germany and as a scientist, won accolades.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern employed a more personal touch last week when she Facebook livestreamed from her couch to directly answer people’s questions and express empathy with everyone undergoing lockdown.
PM Abe needs to tackle not only how the country is approaching COVID-19 but also the way he talks about the situation.
If he has seen how anxious the people in Japan are, over both the economic uncertainty over businesses, jobs and livelihoods, and how unnerved they have been by the coronavirus outbreak, perhaps he might take a different approach.
The answer he is not looking to regain the trust of his people lies not on the podium of his next press conference, but in the eyes of the people in that hall and elsewhere around the country.
Yuka Hasegawa is a researcher who writes on social issues and politics in Japan.