Japan’s response to COVID-19: slowly going back to normal?

How the Japanese governments handles the aftermath of the outbreak, could redeem the initial missteps that were cause for criticism
Part of the Japanese Foreign Policy Project
By Yuki Tatsumi Author

It is difficult to render an early “scorecard” for Japan’s response to COVID-19. Leaders have been heavily criticized for a couple of initial missteps, particularly the government’s decision to keep the passengers of the cruise ship Diamond Princess quarantined on the ship for 14 days before allowing them to disembark. The government was also criticized for abruptly closing all elementary and secondary schools for the entire month of March and for not placing a total ban on flights from China and other places where the outbreak was reported sooner.

To be fair, the government did seem to be chasing the situation rather than trying to get ahead of it.  The announcement of school closures for the month of March made many working parents scramble for childcare, coming as it did on February 27, which left both parents and school officials only a few days to come up with arrangements.  The government was also criticized for not doing enough to trace the contacts made by the passengers who disembarked from the Diamond Princess, making it extremely difficult for health authorities to take proactive measures to contain the virus. 

And yet, despite the initial concern, Japan does not seem to have experienced the level of outbreak of Coronavirus that was once feared – at least not yet.  In fact, for the most part, life in Japan has continued as normal.  There has been no formal order for “social distancing.” Though many fewer people were going out to restaurants and bars, many people continued to go out and about for necessary trips.  And despite the government “encouraging” companies to allow employees to telework, remote-commuting has not exactly taken root in Japan: many people, including government officials, continued to take crowded public transit to work — often wearing masks. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted that the prime minister needs the authority to declare a national emergency, and a new law is necessary to that end, no prefectures are under a state of emergency. Hokkaido declared a state of emergency and then lifted it on March 19.

Why? Some argue that the number of confirmed cases is being severely underreported because of the lack of a rigorous testing program, especially of those who are asymptomatic.  Others claim that Japan is simply conducting its testing more efficiently, targeting only those who have been traced to have close contacts with those who are infected.

The most likely reason for this outcome is the Japanese people’s experience with disasters and their ability to adapt with resilience — similar to what they demonstrated in the aftermath of Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.  They have simply hunkered down and found ways to cope with their new, temporarily-restricted lifestyle — without their government ordering them to stay home.  Much of the public has voluntarily exercised self-quarantine, with library and recreational facilities closed, sporting, entertainment, graduations other mass-gatherings cancelled or postponed, and people generally limiting contact outside of families for the last several weeks.

Whatever the reason is, the reality is that today, as many places — including countries in Europe and the US – are entering lockdown mode, Japan seems to be slowly crawling out of a self-imposed lockdown.  Schools, which have been closed since March 2, will likely reopen in April, and public gatherings will begin to slowly resume.  

However, the resilience that the Japanese people have demonstrated should not be the reason to excuse some of the missteps the Japanese government might have made in the very beginning of the outbreak. And it is possible that this initial progress is illusory, and the virus will follow the pattern it has in so many other countries.

On March 24, Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have agreed to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021.  For Prime Minister Abe, how he manages the aftermath of COVID19 — especially the challenge of rescheduling and successfully holding the now-postponed Olympic games — may well determine his legacy.

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