Okinawa becomes 10th prefecture in Japan to come under Covid-19 state of emergency

Okinawa recorded 207 new cases on May 21, 2021. PHOTO: THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

TOKYO - Okinawa will come under a month-long state of emergency from Sunday (May 23) because of Covid-19, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said, bringing the total number of prefectures under such a measure to 10.

Mr Suga's decision on Friday came as Okinawa battled a surge in infections, which has largely been blamed on the estimated 100,000 travellers who flocked to the balmy tropical south-west island chain over the Golden Week holidays earlier this month.

Okinawa, which recorded 207 new cases on Friday, will be under the emergency decree until June 20. This is later than the May 31 expiry date that has been set for the other nine areas under similar restrictions, including Tokyo and Osaka.

More than 90 per cent of the hospital beds allocated for Covid-19 patients in Okinawa have been filled, raising fears of a repeat of the situation in Osaka and Hyogo, where patients have died at home while waiting to be hospitalised.

"The number of cases has increased rapidly, especially among the younger generation, leading to a serious strain on hospitals," Mr Suga said.

The fourth Covid-19 wave to hit Japan is driven by more infectious and deadlier variant strains, with the epicentre in Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in the Kansai region, where people in their 20s without underlying conditions are among the dead.

Hokkaido, another popular tourist destination that is also under the state of emergency, set a new record high of 727 cases on Friday.

This figure is higher than that recorded on the same day in Tokyo and Osaka, which have both seen infections levelling off in recent days. The two metropolitan areas logged 649 and 415 cases respectively.

Still, prefecture leaders and medical experts are warning against prematurely lifting the state of emergency in these areas.

Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said on Friday: "It is still a very serious situation, with the number of seriously ill patients and a lack of hospital beds. It's not one where we can discuss lifting the state of emergency."

Disease Control and Prevention Centre director Norio Ohmagari said that the situation remained critical despite the fall in infections, and that it was necessary to monitor the situation further.

Citing sources, the Mainichi daily said that calls were growing within the government for an extension to the emergency beyond May 31 in the nine regions.

Public pressure is also mounting on Mr Suga for more decisive measures, as media surveys show a vast majority of the public view his Covid-19 countermeasures negatively. Compounding the public's fears is the imminent flag-off of the Olympic Games in about 60 days.

Friday marked the third time Mr Suga has had to adjust the terms of the ongoing emergency, which began on April 25 in only four prefectures - Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo. He promised the public "short, intensive, focused and powerful" measures which would see the situation under control by May 11.

But the emergency has not only been prolonged to May 31 but two other prefectures, Aichi and Fukuoka, were added to the list on May 7.

Three more areas - Hokkaido, Hiroshima and Okayama - were placed under the state of emergency areas last week with the measure also expiring on May 31.

Another eight prefectures - Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Gunma, Mie, Gifu, Ishikawa and Kumamoto - are also under so-called "quasi-emergency" measures.

This means that 18 out of Japan's 47 prefectures are under some form of Covid-19 restrictions, covering 86.1 million people or 68.6 per cent of the population.

Eighteen out of Japan's 47 prefectures are under some form of Covid-19 restrictions. PHOTO: AFP

But there are some bright spots. The nation's vaccination programme is set to pick up speed with the opening of mass inoculation centres in Tokyo and Osaka next week, and the formal approval for the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines on Friday.

Together with Pfizer, Japan has secured a total of 364 million doses from the three manufacturers, which is more than enough for a two-shot regime for the country's 125.4 million people.

Just over four per cent of the population has received at least their first dose so far. The number of doses administered daily averaged 322,000 over the past week, about a third of Mr Suga's target of a million a day.

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