Addressing a nation gripped by uncertainty, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday made a televised appeal for public cooperation in the “fight against the invisible and unknown virus” and tried to soften the blow from his government’s abrupt and disruptive containment measures.
“Frankly, it isn’t possible to conquer this fight with only the government’s power,” Abe said with a stern gaze and reassuring voice. “We must be resolved that the ongoing battle is critical and harsh. We are aware that we are causing trouble for the Japanese people but we also humbly ask for cooperation from each and every person.”
In a 36-minute broadcast from the Prime Minister’s Office that was reminiscent of a U.S. presidential address from the Oval Office, Abe said he was aware of criticism of his administration’s measures but said he will make the decisions necessary “to protect the safety and living of the people” and take all responsibility.
One of the first things he addressed was his abrupt request Thursday night to have all of Japan’s schools close through spring vacation.
Acknowledging that his initial explanation was insufficient, he said a snap decision was needed in light of medical experts’ opinions that the next week or two would be critical in containing the COVID-19 outbreak.
The prime minister said the government will endeavor to expand the nation’s testing capacity and allow public health insurance to cover costs related to such testing starting this week. The measure will allow testing to be conducted by private institutions by circumventing public health centers.
He also said the government will raise the number of hospital beds available to 5,000 from 2,000 at hospitals designated for treating infectious diseases in case infections surge. The government is studying to see whether three drugs, including Favipiravir, are effective in treating COVID-19, he said.
The government will also establish a subsidy program to help full-time and part-time workers who may have to take days off to care for their children.
To blunt the economic impact of the coronavirus, Abe pledged to roll out the government’s second emergency spending package within 10 days using ¥270 billion from the fiscal 2019 reserve fund. The first round of measures, worth ¥15.3 billion, was adopted in early February.
In addition, the government will expand employment subsidies, strongly encourage telecommuting and respond flexibly to volatility in the financial markets.
Saturday’s official news conference was Abe’s first about the rapidly spreading virus, which can cause deadly pneumonia and first emerged in Japan in late January.
The prime minister’s appearance was meant to reassure an apprehensive public, but it was also viewed as an attempt to salvage his image, which has been battered by criticism from both the ruling and opposition parties who have accused Abe of doing too little too late.
On Thursday, Abe asked all of the nation’s public and private elementary, junior high and high schools, as well as special education schools, to close until the end of spring vacation, which typically ends in early April. The school year begins in April and ends in March.
Koichi Hagiuda, the education minister, later clarified that the request is not legally binding and individual municipalities and schools could make their own decisions.
The school closure announcement caught many by surprise and upended the daily routine of millions of students. It was also devoid of specific, detailed implementation plans, bewildering school officials across the country and angering municipal leaders.
Some media reports said that even the education minister and Abe’s close aides were against the idea, but were ignored.
Abe had many reasons to act unilaterally: the daily pace of confirmed infections is not slowing and his polling numbers are plummeting.
Some critics say the decision was made in haste and resulted from Abe’s desire to prioritize his political interests over those of single parents and double-income households.
“For children, March is an important period before the end of an academic year, graduation or entering into higher-level schools,” Abe said. “It is gut-wrenching to shut down schools this period when students make memories with friends with whom they’ve spent the school year.”
Shutting down the schools, however, was essential to eliminate the possibility of mass infections involving children, Abe said.
On Saturday, new infections were reported in Kochi, Niigata and Miyagi prefectures.
On Friday, Hokkaido declared a state of emergency and asked people not to go outside over the weekend.
The same day, the health ministry said that the first British national from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship off Yokohama had died. The person was also the first foreign national from the vessel to die after exposure to the virus.
Abe said he was willing to solicit bipartisan support from the opposition to pass legislation for dealing with the coronavirus.
Regarding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to Japan, Abe said there are no changes “at this point” and said the two sides are still striving to hold a summit with good results.
“I believe we’re able to prevail for sure,” Abe said with a dose of optimism. “I’ve been saying politics is a responsibility with consequences. I have no intention to run away from the responsibility at all.”
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