Towns, cities and prefectures are divided over how to handle information on coronavirus patients, such as where they went and who they might have met with after getting infected.

Disclosure generally works in favor of public safety and helps ease anxiety during epidemics, but it also could raise privacy issues and trigger baseless rumors.

When a bus driver in Nara tested positive for the new virus on Jan. 28 after transporting tourists from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, public concerns grew the bus had visited many places in the Kanto and Kansai regions. The driver is the first known case of human-to-human transmission in Japan.

While the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry refrained from disclosing the itinerary of the bus in detail, the Nara Prefectural Government told the Kanagawa Prefectural Government that the driver stayed overnight in Kanagawa.

“Withholding information can encourage paranoia,” Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa said, expressing hope that the central government will disclose information in detail.

Behind the health ministry’s caution is the infectious disease law, which requires proactive information disclosure by the central and local governments but also calls for paying due attention to protection of personal information.

Kotaro Nagasaki, governor of Yamanashi Prefecture, said his prefecture will value professional judgment when disclosing information. “Losing our cool and stirring things up will cause a panic,” he said.

In contrast, the Osaka Prefectural Government is an eager discloser, with Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura showing the public details of where the tourists went in Osaka.

“Giving out precise information leads to cool-headed decision-making and actions,” Yoshimura said.

The Mie Prefectural Government meanwhile disclosed the recent travel history of an infected resident after gaining the patient’s consent, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to take the same approach.

“We’ll disclose information with due consideration to privacy protection and prevention of baseless rumors,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said.

In a set of proposals on combatting the outbreak that was submitted to the government and the ruling bloc on Wednesday, the National Governors’ Association demanded uniform guidelines on information disclosure.

“Instead of letting local governments take different approaches, Japan as a country should draw up uniform guidelines,” said Kamon Iizumi, chief of the association and governor of Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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