TOKYO (REUTERS, AFP) - Facing calls to declare a coronavirus state of emergency, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was flamed on social media on Thursday (April 2) for instead offering people free cloth masks, pointing to growing frustration for some over his handling of the crisis.
Abe's offer of masks - two per household - came the day after experts had warned Japan was on the brink of a medical crisis as cases rose around the nation, especially in Tokyo.
The prime minister said on Wednesday Japan was "barely holding the line" in its battle against the virus.
The prime minister launched his offer to send cloth masks out while wearing one at a meeting of a government task force late on Wednesday. The masks will be sent to each of Japan's more than 50 million households starting the week after next, first to areas seeing a spike in cases.
"You can use soap to wash and re-use them, so this should be a good response to the sudden, huge demand for masks," he said.
Within hours of the announcement, the hashtag "Abenomasks", a play on the Prime Minister's signature "Abenomics" economic policy, was trending on Japanese Twitter.
"A night has passed and it was not a dream," Professor Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at the Kobe University, tweeted on Thursday (April 2), referring to Mr Abe's Wednesday announcement.
He denounced the proposal as a "waste of money", pointing out that hospitals would never use cloth masks of the sort proposed by Mr Abe.
Another Twitter user, with the handle Usube, said. "Is the Japanese government for real? This is a total waste of tax money."
"I will make two masks myself," one Twitter user wrote. "Don't give them to me. Use the money for something else."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday that the masks are estimated to cost about 200 yen (S$2.65) each, which could make the cost of the programme 40 billion yen, before shipping.
Mr Suga defended the programme, saying it would also help ease demand for surgical masks.
It's not the first time Abe has faced criticism for his coronavirus strategies.
Some have said his initial response to the virus outbreak was sluggish, with charges from critics that he played down the threat in the hope that Tokyo could go ahead and host the now-postponed Summer Olympics this year.
Abe denied the claims.
Critics say he should act now on a state of emergency, fearing a spike in infections after crowds gathered in some places to attend traditional cherry blossom viewing parties last month, despite calls to stay home. Abe's wife, Akie, was blasted after pictures emerged of her at one such event, but Abe defended her, saying it was a private gathering at a restaurant.
Though small compared with outbreaks in the United States, Europe and China, coronavirus infections are on the rise in Japan - with more than 2,500 confirmed cases as of Thursday morning and 71 deaths, according to NHK public broadcaster.
A record of more than 90 new cases appeared in Tokyo alone, its biggest one-day increase, Kyodo news agency said.
But Abe says it's not yet time to declare a state of emergency giving authorities legal clout to urge residents to stay home, close schools and take other steps.
Opinion polls suggest the country has been divided on his crisis stances, with his approval rating having recovered to just shy of 50 per cent in mid-March. Japanese law does not mandate penalties for those who deny most lockdown-style requests, unlike in some other countries, but does allow expropriation of buildings or land for medical facilities.
Abe's ruling party has long called for revising Japan's constitution to insert an emergency powers clause that critics say would infringe civil rights. But he has been wary of invoking watered-down restrictions authorised in a law revised last month.
The leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, Yuichiro Tamaki, this week called on Abe to declare a state of emergency, while the Japan Medical Association pointed to a crisis at hospitals in some regions, where beds for virus patients are full and doctors and nurses are getting infected.
"Abe has always been 'economy first'," said Jesper Koll, CEO of fund manager WisdomTree Japan.
The prime minister returned to power in 2012 promising to revive economic growth with 'Abenomics', and has promised a huge fiscal package to counter the outbreak's blow to the economy. "If you declare an emergency, it is definitely the end of'Abenomics', the end of 'economy first'," said Koll.
Meanwhile, back on Twitter, the premier's offer of two masks per household was the object of particular scorn. A commenter using the Twitter handle Yosuke asked, "If your family has more than two people, what are you supposed to do - fight over them?"