Coronavirus Asia

Delta variant wreaks havoc in Japan in diverse ways and locations

Suga appeals to public to cut outings as cases run riot from Tokyo to Osaka and Okinawa

Women in Fukuoka wearing face masks yesterday, amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Japan recorded 19,955 cases yesterday as the number of patients in intensive care or on life support rose to another new peak of 1,646. PHOTO: REUTERS
Women in Fukuoka wearing face masks yesterday, amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Japan recorded 19,955 cases yesterday as the number of patients in intensive care or on life support rose to another new peak of 1,646. PHOTO: REUTERS

A hospital in Okinawa has become a big Covid-19 cluster with 196 patients in a month, of whom 64 died.

A high school in Miyazaki is reeling with heartbreak after being forced to withdraw from a national summer baseball tournament when 13 members of the team tested positive for Covid-19.

The 200,000 residents of Taito ward in Tokyo will not get their household waste cleared at least until the end of this month after 17 trash collectors became infected.

The highly contagious Delta variant has reared its ugly head in Japan in different ways in recent weeks. Among its victims are stationmasters at Shibuya, one of the world's busiest train stations; staff at Shinjuku's Lumine mall and Osaka's Hankyu mall; and members of pop idol group AKB48.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, showing a rare glimpse of vulnerability, admitted at a news conference yesterday that the ferocity of the spread of Covid-19, driven by the Delta variant, has been "completely unexpected".

This was his third Covid-19 news conference in six weeks, each time to expand and extend areas under a state of emergency or the lighter "quasi-emergency" even as the public has queried his leadership and the apparent optimism behind the short periods of extension.

Yesterday, Mr Suga extended emergency measures from the intended expiry of Aug 31 to Sept 12, while expanding the regions under an emergency from six prefectures to 13. Another 16 prefectures will come under lighter "quasi-emergency" measures.

"This has been a very long battle. I know that people are anxious, that even if they are following the rules things are not going well and they are feeling helpless, seeing their summer vacations being destroyed," he said. "But with your cooperation, we can overcome these difficulties with strong resolve."

Mr Suga reiterated the three pillars that have long formed the basis of his Covid-19 strategy - fortifying the medical structure, preventing infections from spreading, and promoting vaccinations.

Vaccinations are proceeding apace with about half the population having had at least one dose, he said. This puts Japan on track to reach his target of 80 per cent being fully inoculated by October.

And while existing measures have been woefully inadequate to curb the spread, Mr Suga yesterday tacked on initiatives including salary raises for doctors, the roll-out of "oxygen stations" to ensure those at home can get help, and requests for department stores to implement capacity limits.

He urged the public to reduce by half trips from their homes, including to the supermarket. But it remains to be seen if this will be heeded by a public that is sick and tired of Covid-19 curbs and as many companies instruct staff to go to workplaces.

Tokyo has been under an emergency from July 12, and the number of cases has leapt 5.5 times since.

There were 4,377 cases yesterday with the number of seriously ill patients on life support climbing to another record high of 276.

  • Japan expands virus emergency


    Covid-19 curbs will be in place in 29 out of Japan's 47 prefectures from Friday till Sept 12, covering 106 million people, or 84.5 per cent of the population. Ongoing restrictions are also extended till Sept 12.

    STATE OF EMERGENCY

    Ongoing: Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Osaka, Okinawa Enacted from Friday: Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka

    The emergency is akin to a very soft lockdown, without curbs on movements or size of gatherings beyond loose requests to avoid "non-essential outings". But the food and beverage sector is told to observe an 8pm curfew on dining in and an all-day ban on alcohol sales. Those that flout guidelines may be fined up to 300,000 yen (S$3,730).

    QUASI-EMERGENCY

    Ongoing: Hokkaido, Fukushima, Ishikawa, Aichi, Shiga, Kumamoto Enacted from Friday: Miyagi, Yamanashi, Toyama, Gifu, Mie, Okayama, Hiroshima, Kagawa, Ehime, Kagoshima Guidelines are similar, albeit looser, than in an emergency. Eateries that violate guidelines may face fines of up to 200,000 yen.

While Tokyo is the epicentre of Japan's fifth wave, it is but the tip of the iceberg with the country posting 19,955 cases yesterday as the number of patients in intensive care or on life support rose to another new peak of 1,646. Daily case records tumbled in 18 prefectures.

All this is bad news for Mr Suga with a general election looming that will make or break his political fortunes. Cabinet approval ratings are plunging to new depths.

"I don't have many options left now," he said in a statement paving the way to the dissolution of the Lower House by Oct 21, when lawmakers' terms will expire. "Among the options I still have, I must choose but... prevention of Covid-19 is my top priority."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2021, with the headline Delta variant wreaks havoc in Japan in diverse ways and locations. Subscribe