Japan’s response to its coronavirus pandemic has become increasingly dependent on health experts working under a special government-appointed COVID-19 taskforce and they are urging urgent action but have faced resistance from politicians.
“The coronavirus is an unprecedented disaster because we have not faced such a major health risk before,” said Professor Hitoshi Oshitani, virologist at Tohoku University and a member of the team. “Rising numbers in the United States and Europe are finally a lesson for Japan to take action.”
Japan was not affected by the SARS virus that hit globally in the 2000s.
A raging public debate on the decision to impose a lockdown on Tokyo where infections have reached a “critical juncture”, according to the taskforce, illustrates ongoing friction between scientific advice and political decisions.
“I personally feel it’s time [Japan] makes the [emergency] declaration and devises measures based on that,” said Satoshi Kamayachi, an executive board member of the Japan Medical Association, who is serving on the government expert panel.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains reluctant. Flanked by Katsunobu Kato, his minister of health, and Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister of state for economic and fiscal policy, Abe appealed on television for more social distancing and working at home as the way out.
An emergency status, a sensitive measure, will permit local governments to take steps such as curtailing public movement. The legislation stipulates the prime minister can take the step once the disease is “rampant”, which means spreading rapidly, and poses a “considerable impact” on lives and the economy.
Analysts contend that the heated debate over health and science in Japan usually ends with political decisions that favour the status quo. “Political decisions rely on stability over radical changes,” said Professor Hiroki Kashiwazaki, assistant professor at the National Institute of Informatics, who is an expert on disaster resilience.
He recalls a similar situation between scientists and government during the massive earthquake and tsunami disaster on 11 March 2011 that caused the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown.
The crisis threw open a national debate with experts calling for nuclear energy reduction to protect public safety against politicians who resisted, favouring protecting the economy.
Still, the trend of working with experts on the health crisis has gained momentum. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government established its own taskforce of health experts and other stakeholders on 30 January.
Tokyo Governor, Koike Yuriko, facing news about a shortage of hospital beds and medics in the event of an over-shoot situation in the city of 14 million, is urging more action from the government.
“There are frequent cases of people getting infected in restaurants and bars; I want to ask people to refrain from going to these establishments at this point in time,” she announced this week.
Dilemma facing experts
Postponing the Olympic Games to next year is another case in point of the dilemma facing experts. While international pressure is viewed as the core reason that persuaded Tokyo, the decision to hold it in July 2021 has become a tug-a-war between science and political decisions.
Koji Wada, professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, says that staging the Olympics next summer could still be “difficult”.
In an interview on 1 April with Kyodo News, he said: “I think it is a little too optimistic to assume that many people will become immune to the virus in one year and three months.”
Japan is bracing for a steep economic decline this year. The impact from postponing the Tokyo Olympics alone is set at 0.36 % of gross domestic product.
Media reports point out that with the postponement of the summer Olympics, Japan is saddled with debt. The government priority is on saving the economy.
“The spread and ongoing rise of the virus is because of the delay in taking serious containment steps. The lack of leadership to adopt urgently needed containment and mitigation measures is because the political priority was to host the summer Olympics,” said Professor Koichi Nakano, political science expert at Sophia University.
Signs that Tokyo, a densely packed city of 14 million people, is bracing for a lockdown are hospitals preparing to meet a surge in patients, pledges of cash handouts by the government and proposals of JPY20 trillion (US$183 billion) in fiscal spending and JPY60 trillion to shore up expected losses from the lockdown.
Nakano points out that the sudden steps taken by the government to contain the virus highlight a lack of transparent communication during a crisis. “Strong scientific evidence needs to be revealed to convince the public to take protective action. But with less testing so far adopted in the country alongside the delay in taking action, there is no informed debate, leading to more confusion and fear,” he pointed out.
Japan carried out 18,322 tests before 22 March compared to South Korea’s almost 348,000 tests for a 51 million population.
In a press conference on 10 March, the director-general of the Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health, Nobuhiko Okabe, said: “I deeply regret” that the government has neglected scientific advice. Okabe is one of the members of the government’s panel of experts who had warned of gatherings in enclosed places as early as the end of February.
Assistant Professor Hiroki Kashiwazaki from Osaka University, a disaster management researcher, explained that the ongoing official response can be traced to a similar situation during the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown when it was hit by a huge earthquake in March 2011.
“The early official response was to maintain calm and not create a panic among the public against a radiation threat. That policy backfired, leading to domestic mistrust against the government,” he said.
He added, though, that a lockdown and heavy economic losses can also become linked to a new health crisis. “Disaster resilience is a difficult learning experience,” he said.