TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is fighting an uphill battle to win the public's compliance with Covid-19 measures, even as an expert panel said on Thursday (Aug 12) that the spiralling infections in Tokyo were nearly beyond containment.
"Infections are rampant to the point of being uncontrollable," said Dr Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Centre and adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. "The public health system is in a serious state of dysfunction."
Dr Shigeru Omi, a former World Health Organisation official who leads the central government's expert panel, said the flow of people in Tokyo must be cut by half, as he described the medical crisis as one of "natural disaster proportions".
Thursday marked a month since an emergency was enacted in Tokyo. But the situation is nowhere close to improving: The seven-day rolling case average has soared by five times in the same period.
There were 4,989 infections in Tokyo on Thursday - the second-highest figure - as the number of patients in serious condition rose to a new peak of 218.
The Covid-19 woes in Tokyo are just the tip of the iceberg for Mr Suga, who needs to dig deep to regain trust and find the political will to acknowledge expert opinion and impose potentially unpopular measures as a general election looms.
Records are falling like dominoes across Japan, which rewrote its day-old Covid-19 record with 18,889 infections on Thursday, according to a tally by broadcaster NHK. Twenty out of the 47 prefectures hit new single-day peaks, while 1,404 patients were in severe condition.
Okinawa called for back-up from military nurses on Thursday as it hit a new single-day record of 732 cases. Its 255 cases per 100,000 residents in the last week makes it by far the worst hit in Japan, surpassing even Tokyo's 198 cases per 100,000 people.
Mr Suga's challenges may be exemplified by a viral social media post that mocked the government's efforts by replacing the word "Olympics" with "homecoming" in official quotes it had previously made about the Games.
One such statement said: "Cancellation is not an option. We will aim to achieve a 'safe and secure' homecoming with the strongest sense of vigilance."
Even university professors and medical doctors joined exasperated members of the public on the sardonic joke. Law professor Yasutaka Machimura of Tokyo's Seijo University wrote on Twitter that he "cannot stop laughing".
The crisis mounts as Japan marks the Bon festival this weekend, one of the peak travel periods with millions criss-crossing the country to pay respects at ancestral graves, though the government has urged the public to refrain from travelling.
It has also repeatedly asked the public to avoid "non-essential, non-urgent" outings. But the plea rang hollow after International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach was photographed strolling down the Ginza shopping district on Monday.
Mr Suga's government has refused to give credence to expert views blaming the Olympics for blunting the public's sense of crisis, nor acknowledge opinions that repeated emergency declarations have lost their edge.
While the Olympic bubble held up due to its rigorous testing and ring-fencing regime, such tests are still not freely nor easily available to the public.
Dr Omi, noting that clusters have emerged in places like shopping malls and schools that are well beyond the government's hitherto policy focus on the food and beverage sector, called on the government again to expand Covid-19 testing.
He added that the government must extend the state of emergency - now in effect in six areas including Tokyo and Okinawa - beyond its expiry on Aug 31 and expand it to more areas to jolt the public into crisis mode.
The 20 prefectures that set new highs on Thursday are, from north-east to south-west: Miyagi (220 cases), Fukushima (211), Niigata (104), Saitama (1,528), Toyama (71), Nagano (84), Shizuoka (354), Aichi (703), Shiga (164), Mie (131), Kyoto (372), Osaka (1,654), Hyogo (728), Okayama (217), Fukuoka (1,040), Saga (89), Nagasaki (74), Kumamoto (189), Kagoshima (154) and Okinawa (732).