TOKYO - The Covid-19 situation in Japan appeared to be hurtling towards a fourth wave led by Osaka’s new daily high of 878 cases on Wednesday (April 7), exactly one year to the day Japan enacted its first coronavirus state of emergency.
This comes as more virulent mutant strains have been spreading, in particular the British variant, while the public grows weary of restrictions and as questions again emerge over Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's leadership in the crisis.
The Tokyo Olympic Games are due to begin in just over 100 days, but inoculations are proceeding at a snail's pace with under 1 per cent of the population having received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Osaka declared its own medical state of emergency on Wednesday, with Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura reviving a "red alert" as he warned that the British mutant strain spreads more quickly and causes more severe illness.
He said that the Olympic torch relay, set to pass through the prefecture next Tuesday and Wednesday, will no longer take place on public roads.
Osaka’s tally of 878 cases on Wednesday marked a steep climb from the previous high of 721 set on Tuesday. It also was a 15-fold jump from the 56 cases on March 1, after a national emergency ended in the city.
Experts warn that Osaka may just be the tip of the iceberg, as Japan reported at least 3,451 cases on Wednesday in its highest tally since Jan 30. Japan’s all-time daily high of 7,949 cases was set on Jan 8.
Japan Medical Association president Toshio Nakagawa said: “The situation has never been more critical. People are now used to Covid-19 and their patience is running out. Worse, the more virulent strains are becoming mainstream.”
Dr Shigeru Omi, who heads a government panel of medical experts, cautioned in the Diet on Wednesday that the fourth wave could see more deaths than previous waves.
Mr Suga was forced on the defensive in a televised doorstop interview, when reporters questioned the position of not pre-emptively taking more stringent measures. He said he was monitoring the daily case tally and the hospital bed occupancy rate.
But experts had forecast the surge in Osaka, and are now warning that Tokyo, which reported 555 cases on Wednesday, its highest since Feb 6, may log over 1,000 cases a day by around April 22.
Tokyo exited a national emergency on March 22, but Governor Yuriko Koike said on Wednesday she will ask the government to include the capital among areas covered by quasi-emergency measures, which are more targeted.
These measures took effect on Monday in parts of Osaka and Hyogo in western Japan and in Miyagi in the north-east. Hyogo, whose main city is Kobe, on Wednesday set a new high of 328 cases, while Miyagi reported 118 cases.
But Osaka's neighbouring prefectures of Nara and Wakayama each reported fresh daily highs on Wednesday, as did Niigata in the north-east. Okinawa set 155 cases on Wednesday in its second-highest tally of all time.
The Covid-19 surge may further dampen support for the Olympics and hurt Mr Suga's political fortunes. While a general election is due by October, Mr Suga has promised voters not to call a snap poll until Covid-19 is brought under control.