National

Coronavirus spike prompts Tokyo alert, but how useful is new alarm?

New system part of city’s plan to gradually reopen while heading off second wave

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff writer

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike triggered the Tokyo Alert system for the first time Tuesday night following an uptick in new coronavirus patients, but some experts have expressed doubt over the effectiveness of the warning mechanism.

Tokyo Alert was introduced more than two weeks ago as part of the city’s plan to gradually reopen society while preventing a second wave of infections.

Koike said she would consider issuing an alert if the average daily number of new cases exceed 20 in a week, the average number of untraceable cases was higher than 50 percent and the number of new cases was more than double that of the previous week.

The average number of new cases reported by the metropolitan government in the past week to Tuesday was 16.3, which is still below the alert threshold. But considering that the capital recorded an alarming 34 new cases on Tuesday — not to mention that average untraceable cases accounted for 50 percent of infections over the past week and that new cases had risen 115 percent since the week prior — Koike went ahead and issued the alert.

“Anything that alerts people to the possibility that things are going in the wrong direction is a good thing,” said Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Sciences.

But the effectiveness of the system is limited both in impact and in reach.

According to city officials, a Tokyo Alert is conveyed to the public in two ways. The first involves Koike calling on residents to exercise caution and urging them to remain vigilant regarding behavior that could lead to a second wave through the media, like she did on Tuesday night via a televised news conference.

The second involves illuminating the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and Rainbow Bridge in red as a signal that the alert has been triggered. Both structures have been illuminated in blue or rainbow colors over the past few weeks.

The lights themselves are “not that useful,” McElwain said, adding that it’s possible only those who were watching television at the time of the announcement, use social media or live within sight of Shinjuku or Tokyo Bay — where the metropolitan building and bridge are respectively located — will be made aware of the alert.

Furthermore, he said, the impact of the alert will decrease each time it’s issued.

“The first day, the impact of the alert may be good, but how long that persists is going to be tricky,” McElwain said.

The capital had entered phase two of its three-part plan just a day earlier on Monday. And then, 34 new cases were reported Tuesday, 13 of which involved hospital patients.

When the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced its coronavirus roadmap, it put forward seven criteria based on which the city would decide whether to issue a Tokyo Alert or, if things got even worse, reactivate voluntary business closure requests that had been lifted along with the state of emergency on May 25.

Koike said three of the seven criteria would largely determine whether she issues an alert. On Tuesday, the governor said she is not considering a reactivation of business closure requests or moving Tokyo back into phase one of its plan as a result of the recent alert.

“The purpose of this alert is to make residents aware of our precarious situation and urge them to be cautious,” Koike said during a meeting of the city’s coronavirus task force Tuesday night.

Following the governor’s announcement, officials said the metropolitan government is considering collaborating with local police departments to coordinate efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus in the city’s entertainment districts, where there are fears of increased infection risks.

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