Japan declares nationwide emergency as coronavirus cases double in one week

People commute to work in Tokyo despite a state of emergency in Japan, on April 16, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan expanded a state of emergency to the whole country on Thursday (April 16), as the number of Covid-19 cases doubled in one week to top the 9,000 mark.

This brings all 47 prefectures under the decree, which will last until May 6.

Initially, the state of emergency declared by the national government on April 7 covered just seven prefectures - Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka.

Other areas such as Aichi and Hokkaido unilaterally declared their own state of emergency after they were shut out by the national government, which had said the rate of infection in those regions did not warrant their inclusion.

The state of emergency does not carry any punitive force, but gives prefecture authorities nationwide the power to "strongly request" residents to stay at home and appeal to businesses to close.

There were 9,220 confirmed coronavirus infections and nearly 200 deaths nationwide as at 9pm on Thursday. Iwate, in the north-east, is the only one of the 47 prefectures to not have reported a single case.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wants the blanket decree to raise the sense of urgency throughout the country, and limit travel across prefectures.

"Infections have been expanding due to the continued movement of people across cities," he said. "Heading into the Golden Week holiday, everybody should avoid non-essential travel."

He was referring to the week-long stretch of holidays, starting April 29, that has customarily been a bumper season for domestic tourism.

He reiterated his call that everyone reduce social interaction by 70 to 80 per cent so that the situation can be improved and the emergency declaration lifted as scheduled on May 6.

There is no uniform policy mandating business, company and school closures across porous prefecture borders.

Tokyo and the neighbouring prefectures have imposed by far the strictest measures, with restaurants asked to close by 8pm.

Mr Abe has asked companies nationwide to telecommute, but to varying results. Morning crowds were down 60 per cent in Tokyo, but just 20 to 30 per cent in Osaka and Fukuoka last week.

School closures, likewise, have not been uniformly implemented, with about 40 per cent opening for the new academic term last week.

The recent spike in cases comes even as Japan has only been testing for Covid-19 at a fraction of its capacity. But plans are now afoot to ease screening requirements so that more people can be tested.

Mr Abe, who has privately likened the fight against the coronavius to "World War III", said the draft supplementary budget will be reworked so as to give every Japanese citizen cash handouts of 100,000 yen (S$1,325).

The unprecedented measure replaces an initial plan to give 300,000 yen to each household whose income has been slashed because of the outbreak, and comes amid bipartisan calls for much bolder action.

Mr Abe has been put on the back foot amid public perceptions of a lukewarm and tone-deaf response by the government to the pandemic. Numerous media polls last weekend showed that four in five Japanese had felt the state of emergency declaration had come "too late".

He is now facing even more pressure over a trip that his wife Akie had made to the southwestern prefecture of Oita on March 15, a day after he had urged continued vigilance as laws were revised to allow the state of emergency declaration.

The first lady had joined a group tour comprising 50 people, said the report in the Shukan Bunshun tabloid. A tour organiser cited Mrs Abe as having said: "I was thinking about going somewhere because the coronavirus cleared out my schedule."

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