SOCIETY

COVID-19: Tackling the Third Wave

On January 7, 2021, a declaration of a state of emergency was issued for Tokyo and surrounding prefectures for the second time. Seven months after the first declaration was issued and some nine months after the first COVID-19 countermeasures were put in place in Japan, the infection continues to spread. Mizuno Tetsu comments.

The EU and UK narrowly reached a Brexit trade deal agreement on December 24, 2020. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “It was a long and winding road.” Von der Leyen was expressing her pleasure by referencing the Beatles song. However, whether or not it was intentional on her part, I was reminded of the lyrics of that song, “Don’t leave me waiting here.”

I may not be the only one who made the connection between that reference and the COVID-19 plight. Although the COVID-19 pandemic situation in Japan is numerically small compared with the rest of the world at present, the infection situation continues to worsen (see figures). Amid a surging third wave, government measures and the behavior of citizens are reminiscent of the “long and winding road,” while the mounting feelings of anxiety and frustration in the absence of clear leadership call to mind the lyrics “Don’t leave me waiting here.”

Masked pedestrians on a crossing in front of Tokyo Station, December 2020

On January 7, 2021, a declaration of a state of emergency was issued for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama Prefectures for the second time (see Box). Seven months after the first declaration was issued by the then Abe Shinzo administration (on April 7, 2020 for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo, and Fukuoka, and on April 16 for the whole country), and some nine months after the first COVID-19 countermeasures were put in place in Japan, the infection continues to spread. 

Prior to the January 7 declaration, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide held a press conference on COVID-19 on December 25, 2020, in which he described the following measures:

The Government has doubled the amount of support paid to doctors and nurses dispatched to respond to coronavirus cases, to 15,000 yen per hour for doctors and 5,500 yen per hour for nurses. And the Government has decided to (1) provide hospitals accepting coronavirus patients an additional budget of 270 billion yen as emergency assistance; (2) urgently allocate a subsidy up to 15 million yen per hospital bed, with 28,000 beds nationwide eligible for this assistance to support health professionals; (3) double the amount of assistance for dining establishments from a maximum of 600,000 yen to 1.2 million yen per month; and (4) prepare a full range of measures to support business owners, including interest-free loans of up to 40 million yen requiring no collateral. Prime Minister Suga added, “regarding the shortening of the operating hours of these establishments, we will consider amending the special measures law so that we are able to take more effective measures by a pairing of benefits with penalties.” Despite Prime Minister Suga’s appeal to citizens to “spend the holidays quietly in small numbers, with family members and people dear to you,” the numbers of infected people continued to grow.

Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide holds a press conference with Dr. Omi Shigeru, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Novel Coronavirus Disease Control, to declare the state of emergency on January 7, 2021.
CABINET PUBLIC RELATIONS OFFICE

 

As more people underwent PCR tests during the holiday season, there was a dramatic jump in the number of positive cases. Although the number of tests continues to increase, it is probably correct to say that the testing rate is still too low compared to other countries, partly due to the difference in approach of focusing primarily on cluster countermeasures. 

On January 8, the day after the declaration of a state of emergency was issued, Prime Minister Suga said at a press conference: 

The state of emergency has entered into effect from today. We intend to implement thoroughgoing measures, such as shortening the operating hours of dining and drinking establishments and having 70% of workers teleworking. In each area nationwide, the number of new cases of infection has made record highs.

We take this extremely seriously. We would like to overcome this pressing situation at all costs, with the cooperation of the citizens.

I ask for your cooperation in this regard.

On January 5, Dr. Omi Shigeru, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Novel Coronavirus Disease Control, commented that to improve the situation in the Tokyo metropolitan area in less than a month from Stage IV, the most serious infection situation, would be a virtually impossible task. He attended Prime Minister Suga’s press conference on the 7th when the declaration was issued, making a strong, clear appeal for effective countermeasures, clear messages from the national and local governments, economic support measures, and the cooperation of the citizens. However, Prime Minister Suga’s declaration was not well-received by the citizens, who saw it as someone else’s problem.

At that press conference, there was a move by the governors of Osaka and Aichi Prefectures to request the government to extend the state of emergency to cover their prefectures due to the spread of the infection and the strain on their healthcare systems. Prime Minister Suga’s response did not communicate a strong message: “[…] under the state of emergency it is still possible to implement measures in the same way we did in those four prefectures. Also, we intend to take thorough measures by confirming the situations in and closely collaborating with such prefectures.”

On the following day, January 9, the governors of Osaka, Hyogo, and Kyoto requested Nishimura Yasutoshi, Minister in charge of the Central Government’s Coronavirus Response, to issue a declaration of a state of emergency for their prefectures, but he responded only that a decision would be made based on the infection situation by the end of the following week (January 15). Osaka governor Yoshimura Hirofumi, feeling a growing sense of crisis, began to consider pursuing measures independently that conformed to the government’s declaration of a state of emergency, such as shortening the business hours of restaurants and other establishments to 8 p.m. from April 14, independently, without waiting for the government’s decision. In response to these developments, the government declared a state of emergency in the three prefectures and four more prefectures Aichi, Gifu, Fukuoka and Tochigi on January 13. 

Meanwhile, in a Kyodo News opinion poll conducted from January 8 to 9, 79.2% of respondents said “the declaration of a state of emergency was too late.” 

Further, in this survey, approval ratings (41.3%) and disapproval ratings (42.8%) for the Suga Cabinet were reversed. When the Administration took office on September 16, 2020, it set “COVID-19 counter measures” as its top priority, but its reputation in this regard continues to fall.

Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, COVID-19 Open Data

Coronavirus Fatigue

In the wake of the second wave, local governments and medical institutions expressed concerns regarding the strain on the healthcare system and called for stronger measures, their demands growing in intensity with each passing day. It is true that the government’s request-based measures were always going to have a limited impact. While countermeasures continued to be taken after the first state of emergency declaration was lifted (on May 14, except for Hokkaido, Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo; on May 21 for Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo; and on May 25 nationwide), in essence, with the spread of “coronavirus fatigue” and “voluntary restraint burnout” through SNS and the mass media around March 2020, the citizens had lowered their guard. No one can be blamed for this situation.

In a Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute survey conducted before the first declaration, 62.4% said they felt more stressed and 50.3% said they were tired of looking at information about COVID-19. 

At a press conference on March 25, 2020, with the number of infected people worldwide exceeding 500,000, then Prime Minister Abe asked people to avoid to the greatest possible extent the “three Cs (closed spaces, crowds, and close contact).” He also said, “Many people may have been feeling stress over the past month, with what can be called coronavirus fatigue or voluntary restraint burnout. However, in the United States and in some countries in Europe now experiencing an explosive spread of infections, there has been no alternative but to put hardline measures in place. These include putting cities into lockdown, imposing obligatory bans on people leaving their homes, and shuttering shops other than those providing daily necessities. We are currently imposing sizable inconveniences, but I ask for your understanding that they are intended to avoid more austere hardline measures of this kind.”

Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, COVID-19 Open Data

I am sometimes amazed by the lack of sense of crisis on the part of young people in TV reports and the businessmen and families I see on the train. While such people are just a small part of the whole picture, some say, “It’s like a class of students left to their own devices when the teacher is away unexpectedly. Some work diligently on their assigned tasks, while others play around and do whatever they please. There’s no discipline.” Others say, “There’s only so much people can put up with. It’s understandable.”

In fact, there are fewer and fewer jobs and more and more people are losing their jobs due to COVID-19. The number of unemployed people alone is around 2 million. If this situation continues, “coronavirus fatigue” will spread. Perhaps even more serious is the “fatigue” resulting from the lack of strong leadership and clear countermeasures.

According to a poll by the Yomiuri shimbun newspaper, the percentage of respondents who “approve” of the government’s COVID-19 measures dropped from 56% in October to 32% in December, while the percentage of those who “do not approve” rose from 37% to 62%. Regarding the question of whether Prime Minister Suga has leadership ability, the percentage who responded “Yes” dropped significantly from 7% to 2%, while the percentage who responded “No” increased significantly from 9% to 41%. The same trend, albeit with a variation in numbers, can be seen in other surveys by media outlets such as Asahi shimbun, NHK, and Kyodo News.

Prevention of Infection and the “Go To” Travel Campaign

COVID-19 measures are not the only issue. The Go To travel campaign has also divided public opinion. When the declaration of a state of emergency was issued, Prime Minister Suga said, “Last month [December 2020], on the recommendation of the experts [of the Subcommittee on Novel Coronavirus Disease Control], we took the measure of suspending the campaign in Hokkaido, Osaka, and Tokyo. I also decided to temporarily suspend the campaign nationally with a view to taking intensive measures over the New Year’s holidays.”

This is why the Suga administration, which succeeded the Abe administration, has been emphasizing the importance of “balancing the prevention of the spread of infection with socioeconomic activities.” At that press briefing, Prime Minister Suga at the same time emphasized the success of the campaign, saying, “[the campaign] attracted a cumulative total of roughly 70 million people, with around 340 cases of infection identified. I believe this has made a substantial contribution to supporting local economies. This was a decision I took after wrestling with it for quite some time.” It cannot be denied that the Go To campaign, including the Go To eat campaign, may have contributed to the citizens lowering their guard.

In a survey conducted by the Yomiuri shimbun at the end of December last year, 42% said the suspension of the Go To campaign (from December 28 to January 11) was “appropriate,” 48% said it should have been stopped, and only 7% said it should have been continued. 

In October, 59% of respondents said that “prevention of infection” should be prioritized, increasing to 62% in November, while in October 32% of respondents said that “economic activities” should be prioritized, falling to 28% in November (Yomiuri shimbun). 85% of respondents said they were “concerned” about infecting themselves or their family members with COVID-19, far more than the 12% who said they were “not concerned” (NHK, December survey). The government’s goal of “balancing the prevention of the spread of infection with socioeconomic activities” has not been able to eliminate the concerns of the public, so it has yet to be evaluated. 

Party Politics and the Post Coronavirus World

In response to the question, “Is Prime Minister Suga demonstrating leadership with COVID-19 measures?”, 19% of respondents answered “Yes” and 70% answered “No” (Asahi shimbun, December survey). This shows the level of trust citizens have in him as a leader. 

Although it is rare for the Japanese to demonstrate, they observe their leaders closely and are sensitive to their words and actions. This is clearly reflected in the various polls, sometimes acting as a silent pressure to bring down the cabinet. Historical novels, dramas, historical dramas, manga, and animations, all of which are popular among Japanese people, are based on the theme of good and evil, and Japanese people of all generations are always looking for heroes.

By this fall, the Olympic and Paralympic Games will have been held and a general election called dissolving the House of Representatives. COVID-19 measures are the key to both these events. Assuming that the situation allows the Olympics to be held without spectators, Japan has a responsibility to focus on preventing the spread of the disease.

With the Suga administration losing support, only the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Independents can take action in terms of political party approval ratings. Support for the LDP has been falling in line with the decline in the approval ratings of the Suga administration, but the approval ratings for the opposition parties, led by the Constitutional Democratic Party, have not increased at all. This is not surprising given that the splits and changing alignments have led to a government obsessed with pursuing scandals like a gossip weekly, with no apparent policy. The independents have shown a tendency to turn into “non-LDPs” after every election, as if to punish the ruling party. The key to the political situation will be whether or not the government regains support by focusing on COVID-19 measures.  

It is not just about domestic politics. We must keep a watchful eye on the diplomacy of the post-Coronavirus world as well as on COVID-19 measures.

At that time, we will see full-scale infighting for a framework based on a post-Coronavirus world.  

Challenges abound: What kind of Asia policy will the Biden administration set out? How will it deal with President Trump’s legacy? What about FOIP, QUAD, the US-China conflict, North Korea’s renewed calls for the United States to withdraw its hostile policy, to name just a few?  

Japan needs to take the initiative in communicating its ideas forcefully.

Viruses always have mutant strains. Mutant strains from the UK, South Africa, and now Brazil have already been identified. This means that the mutations are already showing up in infections.

From a geoeconomics perspective, Japan must complete its journey on the long and winding road as soon as possible. 

MIZUNO Tetsu is a freelance writer.

Note: This article first appeared in the January/February issue of the Japan Journal.

Pedestrians on the scramble in front of Shibuya Station, Tokyo, November, 2020

 

 

 

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