Japan expands emergency areas again as expert blasts 'baselessly optimistic' Covid-19 policies

Japan set 24,321 cases with 10 prefectures hitting fresh one-day highs on Aug 25, 2021.
Japan set 24,321 cases with 10 prefectures hitting fresh one-day highs on Aug 25, 2021.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO - Groundless optimism rather than scientific medical analysis.

This was how Dr Shigeru Omi, a former World Health Organisation official who now heads Japan's government panel of experts on Covid-19, described the country's approach to the pandemic in a Diet committee session on Wednesday (Aug 25).

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's woes are fast deepening ahead of a crowded election calendar, as the ferocious spread of Covid-19, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, threatens to upend his best-laid plans.

Mr Suga on Wednesday called his second news conference in eight days to declare yet another expansion of an ongoing state of emergency - to eight more prefectures including Hokkaido and Aichi. This will come into effect on Friday.

This brings the total number of prefectures under emergency measures to 21, with another 12 regions under the looser "quasi-emergency". The curbs are slated to expire on Sept 12 for all 33 prefectures - a date that experts note is not grounded in medical science but in political grandstanding.

Mr Suga will have to convince his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in an internal presidential election next month that he is the best man to lead the party into a national general election that must be held by November.

Yet the relentless surge in Covid-19 infections comes at the most inopportune time for him.

On Wednesday, Japan set 24,321 cases with 10 prefectures hitting fresh one-day highs. These include Osaka, with 2,808 cases, and Okinawa, where a record of 809 cases was set despite the prefecture having been under an emergency since May.

The number of patients in intensive care or on life support climbed to a new peak for a 13th straight day, with 1,964 cases nationwide.

Against this backdrop, Mr Suga was forced on the defensive numerous times at the news conference when reporters bombarded him with difficult questions over whether Japan's Covid-19 strategy was working.

He stood his ground and insisted that his policies were not only working, but were also effective, pointing to how unnamed countries that implemented lockdowns have had to cope with a resurgence of the virus.

Yet the response missed the mark in how he did not mention that the resurgence elsewhere had been triggered by imported cases, nor the fact that procedures like contact tracing had allowed countries to isolate cases quickly.

Japan's surge, meanwhile, appears to be largely domestic. Dr Omi told the news conference, with Mr Suga beside him: "It's difficult to obtain the understanding and coordination of the public anymore, and this is a harsh reality we must accept. Even if we issue state of emergency declarations, the problem will not be solved unconditionally anymore."

Still, there are some bright spots. Tokyo's surge appears to have tapered off, with the 4,228 cases on Wednesday bringing the seven-day rolling average down to 4,471.4 cases, which is 95 per cent that of a week ago.

Vaccinations are proceeding steadily, with 42.6 per cent of the population fully immunised and another 10 per cent having received their first dose.

But Dr Omi said that such victories are not good enough reason to let the guard down, as he noted potential risks with schools due to reopen after summer holidays.

He also blasted a return visit for the ongoing Paralympic Games by International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach - who is persona non grata in the eyes of many Japanese - as "defying common sense".

Mr Bach courted backlash two weeks ago when he was photographed shopping in Ginza, and Dr Omi was unusually forthright when he said: "You're asking people to work from home. Bach could well have given his greetings online. Why does he have to bother coming all the way here? Are you really going to ignore the public who is questioning whether his return trip is for another jaunt down Ginza?"


International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach and Japan Olympic Committee chief Yasuhiro Yamashita leaving a goalball game at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Against the grim daily infection numbers, Mr Suga faces an uphill battle in convincing the public that his measures are working. He has been ridiculed for his inability to speak to the public, with online critics saying that parents are better off not letting their children watch his news conferences as an unwanted lesson in evasion.

Every other day, there is bad news on the health front. Celebrities have died. Hospitals can only admit the sickest, leaving many with moderate or light symptoms to recover at home only for their condition to take a sudden turn for the worse.

Last week, an infected pregnant woman was shunned by hospitals to the point that she went into labour at home. Her baby was stillborn.

"My top priority is to establish the necessary medical system, take thorough anti-infection measures and promote vaccinations to overcome this crisis. This is the responsibility put on me, as Prime Minister," said Mr Suga. "I know I have been criticised for my communication and my words. I take this seriously, and I would like to respond in a sincere way."

Emergency areas grow

Japan added eight more prefectures under a Covid-19 state of emergency, bringing the total number to 21 out of 47 prefectures under the declaration until Sept 12. Another 12 regions are under the looser "quasi-emergency". All in, the 33 prefectures are home to 109.8 million people, or 87.6 per cent of Japan's population.

State of Emergency

Ongoing: Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Osaka, Okinawa

Enacted last week: Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka

Enacted from Friday: Hokkaido, Miyagi, Gifu, Aichi, Mie, Shiga, Okayama, Hiroshima

A state of emergency is akin to a very soft lockdown, with no punitive curbs on movements or size of gatherings beyond loose, undefined requests to avoid "non-essential outings". 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$3,690).


The food and beverage sector is told to observe an 8pm curfew on dining in and an all-day ban on alcohol sales. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Quasi-Emergency

Ongoing: Fukushima, Ishikawa, Kumamoto

Enacted last week: Yamanashi, Toyama, Kagawa, Ehime, Kagoshima

Enacted from Friday: Kochi, Saga, Nagasaki, Miyazaki

Guidelines are similar, albeit less strict, than in a state of emergency. Eateries that flout guidelines may face fines of up to 200,000 yen.