A Japan divided over COVID-19 control

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe covers his face with his hands as he lisyens to a question by an opposition lawmaker at the National Diet in Tokyo, 3 March 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO).

Author: Hiromi Murakami, GRIPS

If the Japanese government’s performance in dealing with the COVID-19 threat is any indication, the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games are doomed to fail even before they begin. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing emergency coronavirus legislation, and a majority of schools are now closed as Abe requested for around a month in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. But the move is too little, too late.

The scary truth is that no one is in charge of managing Japan’s response to COVID-19.

Bureaucrats have failed to put together a competent team or provide transparent reports about decision-making processes. Meanwhile, political leaders make themselves look busy by jumping from meeting to meeting and repeating experts’ statements to the press instead of making the difficult decisions that are becoming increasingly urgent.

The contrast between Beijing and Tokyo is striking and unflattering to Japan. Downtown Beijing is deserted as people try to avoid spreading the virus by staying home. Tokyo looks like business as usual, with trains and subways still packed.

The Japanese government has shifted its efforts to contain the spread of the virus from seaports and airports to focussing on communities and asking people to stay at home. But the messages have been mixed. The media remains optimistic, reporting that the virus is mild and will likely taper off as summer arrives. As a result, not all local communities are adhering to Abe’s request to close schools. There is little detailed symptom data available from authorities and medical doctors. Only healthcare workers are voicing real concern, while the public struggles to judge how to protect itself from this ‘very mild’ yet deadly virus.

This is not to downplay the efforts of the individual authorities who are engaged at the frontline. The emergency budget of US$138 million — though far less …continue reading