News analysis

Coronavirus: Japan could be nearing 'explosion' in cases as critics warn lax measures breed complacency

Crowds of people wear protective masks at Shinagawa station in Tokyo, on March 2, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japan, which has taken a considerably more relaxed approach to fighting the coronavirus than other countries, is now being forced to relook its measures amid warnings that it was on the verge of an "explosion" in cases.

The government on Thursday (March 26), in recognising a "high risk of spread", set up a special coronavirus headquarters under the Prime Minister's Office, setting the stage for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency.

This will give the authorities the power to close schools and ask people to stay home but, with the protection of human rights such as the freedom of movement enshrined in Japan's Constitution, will unlikely impose criminal penalties or even be legally binding.

Japan warned on Feb 24 that the following two weeks would be the "critical moment" in its fight against the coronavirus.

Now, one month later, the numbers are surging even as Japan is only testing at a fraction of its capacity. Nationwide, there were 96 new cases on Wednesday in the single largest-day increase so far. There were 84 cases as at 8.30pm on Thursday, bringing the total to 1,391.

Tokyo, a sprawling metropolis of 14 million people, has become the centre of the outbreak, with four straight days of new daily highs. There were 47 new cases in the capital on Thursday, with more than 20 with untraced infection routes.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike urged residents to stay home and avoid going out unnecessarily, especially this weekend, in an attempt to keep a lid on the situation.

The neighbouring prefectures of Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba and Yamanashi, which together comprise the Greater Tokyo region, have all followed suit.

Some business operators, including the landmark Shibuya 109 mall and Lumine department store, are taking the initiative to shut following the government’s request that people stay home. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, a popular cherry blossoms spot, will also close its doors to the public this weekend.

But what has concerned critics is the fact that Japan's sudden surge comes in spite of tests being done only sparingly - a measure that seemingly goes against the World Health Organisation's advice for more comprehensive screening.


Japan's Health Ministry said this was necessary to avoid stirring paranoia and panic, which could overburden a medical system that has insufficient beds.

Its guidelines say that people should only call their local health authorities if they have a fever of more than 37.5 deg C, or encounter breathing difficulties, for four days. The timeframe is halved for elderly and other at-risk groups.

Still, this raises the risk that milder - or even asymptomatic - cases could go undetected in a country where the overwhelmingly prevalent work culture frowns on people calling in sick for mild illnesses. What complicates matters is the fact that with the dawn of spring comes the hay fever season, which means a Covid-19-induced sneeze could be brushed off as a pollen allergy.

Among the vocal critics are former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who thinks the 1,391 cases so far downplay the gravity of the situation.

Health Ministry figures show that 25,171 people in the country of 126.7 million were tested for Covid-19 as of 12pm on Thursday. Singapore, in comparison, has 5.7 million people but has done at least 39,000 tests.

"In Japan, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing is inadequate and the exact number of infected people is unknown," Mr Masuzoe said. "This is especially true for those who are positive but may be asymptomatic."

Business leaders have also been vocal about the need to test more people. Softbank founder Masayoshi Son offered to sponsor one million free PCR tests this month, but backtracked over public fury that his plan will lead to the collapse of the healthcare system.

Still, he has an ally in Rakuten chief executive Hiroshi Mikitani, who said he "cannot understand the reason of not testing people" and noted ways to avoid burdening institutions.

"Anyone with symptoms should be examined, and those who are at low risk can be treated at home," he said.

This is preferable to the current alternative, he added, of not having a full picture of the problem. He said:"This has bred a dangerous sense of complacency that Japan is safe."

This could be a reason why rush-hour trains have been packed, while many enjoyed cherry blossom viewing parties or went shopping in Shibuya and Ginza last weekend.

The government instructions are expected to pressure people into compliance. But there are no criminal penalties for ignoring advice to "exercise self-restraint" and to "avoid going out unnecessarily".

This is to a large extent enshrined in the Constitution, which guarantees freedoms and rights that "shall be maintained by the constant endeavour of the people, who shall refrain from any abuse of these freedoms and rights".

In response to a question by The Straits Times, Dr Shigeru Omi, chief director of the Japan Community Health Care Organisation, told a media briefing last month: "We must respect human rights and the movement of people. But we also need to focus on the public interest."

Dr Omi, who sits on an expert panel advising the government, added: "It's not a legal obligation. But it is a recommendation, a plea, from the government to the general public and we hope that a majority - if not everybody - will come on board to join the fight."