Japan on ‘maximum alert’ as Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido set new one-day highs

Tokyo is expected to raise its alert level to the highest of a four-tier scale on Thursday.
Tokyo is expected to raise its alert level to the highest of a four-tier scale on Thursday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO -  As Japan is on “maximum alert” with the number of Covid-19 cases hitting new highs for a second straight day on Thursday (Nov 19), its leaders have declined to budge on a domestic tourism campaign that is being blamed as a vehicle for the third wave of infections.

There were at least 2,377 cases yesterday, with one-day peaks rewritten in six of the country’s 10 most populated prefectures including Tokyo, Osaka and Hokkaido.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, stressing the need for utmost vigilance, proposed “quiet gatherings with masks” when dining out, with non-binding measures including a cap of party sizes at four people.

But he ignored a shouted question about the Go To Travel campaign providing hefty subsidies to domestic travellers. Japan Medical Association president Toshio Nakagawa had described it as a “sure catalyst” of the current wave.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said on Thursday that the tourism campaign will go on, as will the Go To Eat campaign to support the ailing food-and-beverage industry. He added that the onus is on travellers to exercise social responsibility to curtail the spread of infections.

While there have been about 40 million overnight stays under the Go To campaign, only 155 travellers had been infected as of Tuesday, government figures show. Another 144 employees of hotels in the campaign had also been infected.

Yet medical experts have argued that these figures do not tell the full picture, with clusters now found in rural regions that are unequipped to deal with a surge in cases.

Clusters have been found in areas like Rishiri island, located off the coast at the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, that has a population of just 1,964 people. In Miyagi prefecture in Japan’s north-east, the local medical association om Thursday declared a crisis over the shortage of beds after the number of cases rose by nearly 50 per cent since Nov 1.

The Nikkei 225 index fell 0.4 per cent on Thursday over virus fears, as a government panel of medical experts is set to meet on Friday.

Unlike the second wave where a vast majority of cases were traced to youth in nightlife district clusters, many of those infected in the current wave are middle-aged and elderly who are at risk of developing severe conditions, raising concern that the current situation is more dangerous. 

But a state of emergency like that during the first wave in April and May is unlikely, with Japan’s leaders mindful of the monetary and psychological damage to a recessionary economy.

Even before the current wave, suicides have spiked, while bankruptcies have skyrocketed especially among mom-and-pop businesses. 

In Tokyo, where Thursday’s 534 cases topped the previous high of 493 set just a day ago, Governor Yuriko Koike raised the Covid-19 alert to the highest on a four-tier scale. Dr Norio Omagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Centre, warned that Tokyo is “in a phase of rapid spread”.

Ms Koike did not curtail the operating hours of bars and restaurants, unlike during the previous wave, saying that few cases were traced to late-night establishments. But she urged those above 65 and with underlying health conditions to avoid dining out.

Other areas with new peaks included Osaka, with 338 cases, and Hokkaido, with 267.

Aichi, whose capital is Nagoya, set a new daily high of 219 cases and raised its Covid-19 alert to the second-highest on a four-tier scale.

Also hitting new highs were Hyogo, where the city of Kobe is located, with 132 cases and Chiba, east of Tokyo, with 106.