Japan faces steep test to contain coronavirus spread in just a month

Japan’s second state of emergency is set to last a month, but public health experts have already expressed doubts that four weeks is enough time to sufficiently slow the coronavirus that’s spreading at an alarming rate.

With residents increasingly facing virus fatigue and no legal framework to force compliance, the country could struggle to quickly turn the trend of infections downward, experts say. Japan has reported new daily records in the past two days, especially around the capital of Tokyo.

“I’m not sure if the situation can become better within a month,” Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University and a member of the expert panel advising the government, told Bloomberg News. “It’s certainly much more difficult to control the current situation compared to the outbreak in summer.”

Japan has enacted a more limited emergency this time, mainly aimed at shortening restaurant hours and encouraging remote work. The measures for now only apply to the capital of Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures. Movie theaters, gyms, karaoke parlors and theme parks, all of which closed during the emergency last spring, are set to stay open with reduced hours, while large events will still be allowed with reduced capacity.

Regions under the emergency will need to emerge from “Stage 4,” the highest government designation for the pandemic, for the status to be lifted. The stages look at factors such as medical capacity, the number of patients, the test positivity rate and the weekly increase in new infections. Experts will continually examine the data to determine which areas meet which stages, they said.

Shigeru Omi, the head of the panel of experts advising the government who said early this week it would be “next to impossible” for Japan to emerge from the emergency in a month, shifted his tone when he briefed the press together with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga Thursday.

“It’s not very easy,” Omi said, “but I believe it’s possible to reduce the infections to a Stage 3 level within a month, if everybody does their best.” Omi said people needed to follow the suggested measures to stay home and avoid nighttime dining and drinking, but it’s been a tough task keeping the younger people out of such venues, where the virus has been spreading throughout the pandemic.

Forthcoming legal changes, which will include the ability to fine establishments that refuse closure requests as well as formalize payments for cooperation, would also be needed, he added. The government will seek to amend related legislation when the Diet resumes on January 18.

The emergency Japan enacted last spring began with a declaration for seven prefectures. That was later expanded nationwide, and the duration extended, before being lifted in stages toward the end of May.

Japan, which had won early praise for its ability to contain the virus without strict lockdowns, saw challenges emerge to its strategy of “living with the virus” as winter approached. Cases began increasing nationwide in November, and have surged in the past week, particularly in the regions near Tokyo. Leaders in other regions, including industrial heartland Aichi and business hub Osaka, have already suggested they may also need to request an emergency declaration as cases surge.

Tokyo Failure

The country has struggled to enlist public cooperation the same way it did in spring. Officials have fretted that concern over the virus was dropping, while many bars and restaurants, already pushed to the edge over the past year, may be reluctant to cooperate with requests to close.

The severe situation in Tokyo is likely due to its failure to enact stricter measures earlier in December, Oshitani said. Areas including Osaka and Hokkaido requested restaurants to close as early as 9 p.m., or to close completely, as the month is a high season for drinking and dining, with social groups and workplaces holding traditional year-end parties.

“In December, Tokyo could not implement aggressive measures — that’s probably why we’re seeing the increasing trend, particularly in the Tokyo metropolitan area,” Oshitani said. “It was important to implement more aggressive measures in December because of the party season.”

Although Tokyo authorities asked for people to avoid these celebrations, the effect was limited. Data from the virus task force showed that while footfall in entertainment districts in Osaka and Hokkaido fell sharply after requests to close, traffic actually rose in Tokyo.

Oshitani said he was hopeful that as January and February tend to be quiet social periods in Japan, people will heed the calls to stay home and slow the virus spread.

“I believe we can still manage to control the situation,” he said. “It totally depends on people’s behavior change.”

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