Japan broadens emergency areas as Covid-19 cases hit 10,000 for second straight day

Critics say too many people are fatigued by the emergency curbs.
Critics say too many people are fatigued by the emergency curbs.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga dug deep and doubled down on the government's coronavirus strategy on Friday (July 30) in the face of critics who said its policies were inadequate against the dangerously virulent Delta strain.

Tokyo and Okinawa set new daily highs in Covid-19 cases this week despite being under a state of emergency.

Critics say too many people are fatigued by the emergency curbs, especially with the summer holidays and Olympic Games occurring, while the government has not adequately conveyed the seriousness of the situation, nor how hospitals are on the brink.

Mr Suga's defence - at times defiant and at others evading the question - came at a news conference to announce an expansion of emergency measures to Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama and Osaka, starting next Monday.

Another five prefectures - Hokkaido, Ishikawa, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka - will on the same day come under lighter 'quasi-emergency' curbs. These measures are due to expire on Aug 31 in all 11 areas, including Tokyo and Okinawa.

On Friday, Japan broke its day-old Covid-19 record with 10,743 cases, driven by Tokyo's 3,300 cases that marked its third straight day above 3,000 infections.

Four prefectures set new one-day highs: Kanagawa, Chiba, Ibaraki and Tottori.

Yet there appears to be a disconnect between what doctors are saying, with politicians reluctant to take greater action, and a public lacking a sense of crisis amid Olympic Games, which are being held within a "bubble" whose robustness is under question.

Doctors warn that much more must be done much faster to curb the spread of the Delta variant - now the mainstream strain circulating in Japan. The number of patients in severe condition nationwide jumped by 87 on Friday to reach 626 cases.

But they fear that politicians do not know what they are doing as complacency seeps in since Japan has escaped the worst of Covid-19.

Nine medical associations bemoaned the government's lack of initiative in a statement on Thursday, saying that the healthcare system is "on the verge of being seriously strained" and calling for decisive action like a nationwide state of emergency.

Mr Suga did not do much to convey this sense of urgency to the public on Friday, repeating the routine requests for the public to follow basic anti-virus measures such as wearing masks, sanitising their hands, and avoiding unnecessary outings. This has rung hollow with a jaded public.

"If the Olympics can be held with infection control, why can't I go out if I take strict countermeasures?" said a Twitter user.

Kobe University public health expert Kentaro Iwata said on Twitter: "The public has tuned out what the government and medical experts are saying. I want the athletes - the very people for whom the Olympics are being held - to issue a strong message."

Separately, Tokyo Medical Association chief Haruo Ozaki said on Thursday that the Olympics makes it "difficult to ask for self-restraint" and so there may be "indirect effects".

Mr Suga, when asked about these "indirect effects", evaded the question by saying that the Games were a positive since people can be "kept off the streets and glued to their televisions".

Ultimately, however, he is pinning his exit strategy on vaccinations. To ease a dire supply shortage, Mr Suga said that Japan will add the AstraZeneca vaccine to those already being used, for people aged 40 and older.

But how far this can ease the problem remains to be seen, as many Japanese say they are still unable to get a shot, amid the shortage.