Gripped by nurse shortage, Osaka and Hokkaido seek aid from Japan military

Nurses from the Self-Defence Forces will be deployed as soon as the prefecture governments request for it.
Nurses from the Self-Defence Forces will be deployed as soon as the prefecture governments request for it.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - Osaka and Hokkaido, facing a severe manpower crunch amid a worsening Covid-19 situation, have turned to the military for help.

The defence ministry will dispatch nurses from the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to help treat the surge in patients, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday (Dec 7).

Japan is suffering from a third wave of Covid-19 infections, which is by far its worst. Daily case tallies hit new highs in recent weeks, while the number of active serious cases has doubled in three weeks and hit a record high of 530 on Monday .

Mr Suga’s Cabinet will compile a third emergency stimulus package on Tuesday which is expected to include subsidies for medical institutions, support for ailing businesses, and funds for an extension of the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign.

Dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the Covid-19 resurgence caused approval ratings for the cabinet to tumble in two separate polls over the weekend.

Support fell by nearly 13 points to 50.3 per cent in a Kyodo News poll, and by eight points to 61 per cent in a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

In the Kyodo poll, 76.2 per cent said preventing infections should take priority over stimulating the economy. In the Yomiuri survey, 49 per cent found the government’s response unfavourable, compared to the 42 per cent who viewed it positively.

Unlike during the first wave of cases, when the national government issued a state of emergency and enlisted the help of celebrities to push the call to stay home, the messaging this time has been far more muddled.

This is mostly because the government is walking a tightrope between balancing public hygiene and propping up a frail economy with an eye on the bumper holiday season.

But this has also sent a tacit signal that it is business as usual, despite Mr Suga stressing that the three weeks between Nov 26 and Dec 17 were extremely important to curb the spread of Covid-19 and avoid a medical breakdown.

Many Japanese, however, appear determined not to let the disease be a party pooper. Mobile data showed crowded streets in Tokyo on Sunday, with foot traffic in the Omotesando shopping district up by 13.7 per cent from a week ago.

Nearby hot springs resorts also recorded a surge in visitors, with foot traffic to Hakone and Atami up by 29.4 per cent and 32.4 per cent respectively from a week ago.

Tokyo reported 299 new cases on Monday, down from 327 on Sunday and a record 584 on Saturday.  Observers caution against reading too much into the latest figure though as Monday numbers are typically low due to fewer tests conducted over the weekend. 

The total number of cases in the week ending Sunday hit a new high of 3,076. Covid-19 bed occupancy climbed to 70.3 per cent on Monday.

In Osaka, where a “red alert” was declared last Thursday (Dec 3), SDF nurses will work at the prefecture’s new Covid-19 facility to treat seriously ill patients. It is set to open next Tuesday (Dec 15).

SDF nurses dispatched to Hokkaido will work in Asahikawa, the prefecture’s second-largest city, where there have been two major hospital clusters with at least 224 cases and 184 cases respectively.

“The shortage of nurses is at a tipping point, and will hinder medical services,” city mayor Masahito Nishikawa told a news conference. 

He added that he had first sought help from the Hokkaido government but other municipalities were also strapped and could not spare enough nurses, hence the request for SDF back-up.