National | ANALYSIS

Abe uses news conference to battle criticism — and coronavirus

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

At a hastily called news conference Saturday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had two hurdles in mind that he was determined to take on. Both had a common theme: invisibility.

The first, and most obvious was Japan’s growing COVID-19 outbreak — which he described as an “invisible and unknown enemy” terrorizing the country. The second, and less apparent, was the surging criticism of his leadership that he had been “invisible” for an entire month since the virus’ first case on Japanese soil was confirmed in late January.

In the rare 36-minute weekend broadcast from the Prime Minister’s Office, Abe made an unusually emotional appeal for public cooperation and attempted to soften the blow of 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. “We must be resolved that the ongoing battle is critical and harsh. We’re aware that we’re causing great trouble for the Japanese people but we also humbly ask for cooperation from each and every person.”

Still, it’s not clear whether Abe’s remarks successfully eased the concerns of a nation gripped by uncertainty. Indeed, the prime minister did not clearly state his rationale for his request that schools nationwide close amid the outbreak and did not present specific, detailed plans to help guardians impacted by his seemingly unilateral decision.

Critics were quick to take Abe to task for the lack of clear initiatives in the speech.

“Dear Prime Minister Abe, a speech is fine but please talk about the details, including about income security, soon,” Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai tweeted Saturday evening.

“The city of Chiba is considering providing a bridge loan for people who see their wages decline or lose jobs as a result of the government’s policy until the nation’s income security is actually delivered,” Kumagai wrote. “But we can’t put the finishing touches on our plan until the government presents its standard on (income) security.”

Saturday’s news conference was Abe’s first official remarks about the rapidly spreading virus, which can cause deadly bouts of pneumonia.

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 the opinions expressed by medical experts who believe the next week or two will be critical in containing the COVID-19 outbreak. Shutting down the schools, thus, was essential to eliminate the possibility of mass infections involving children, Abe said.

But Abe did not elaborate further on why he requested a nationwide school closure instead of pinpointing regional areas where mass infections have been reported.

Dr. Nobuhiko Okabe, director-general of the Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health and an epidemiologist on the government’s coronavirus council, told public broadcaster NHK that the council did not discuss the shutdown, which he said was political.

As an alternative to school closures, the government has asked after-school child care programs to extend opening hours to accommodate children in need.

However, that option could backfire, according to Chiba mayor Kumagai, who added that the city is taking care of students in the lower grades at some schools with limited numbers of students.

“Even if you shut down schools, infection risks will increase if after-school programs run at full capacity from the morning,” he tweeted. “If the government can’t decide a guideline on effective implementation methods from an epidemiological standpoint, the risk, including for instructors, remains.”

The prime minister’s news conference 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.

To direct attention to the overall measures his administration is implementing other than school closures, Abe affirmed that the government will work 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 also cover testing conducted at private facilities.

He also said the government will raise the number of hospital beds available to more than 5,000 from over 2,000 at hospitals designated for treating such diseases in case infections surge. The government is also studying whether three drugs, including Avigan, 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 February.

In addition, the government will expand employment subsidies, strongly encourage telecommuting and respond flexibly to volatility in the financial markets.

In a bid to pass legislation for dealing with the new coronavirus, Abe also said he was willing to solicit bipartisan support from the opposition. Opposition parties say they will cooperate with the administration, but put forward doubts about its efforts so far, criticizing the government for not doing enough to thoroughly explain its measures to the public.

“Against expectations, it is disappointing that (Abe’s explanation) was lacking anything new in terms of policy and a message to the people,” said Seiji Osaka, the head of Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan’s policy research council.

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 and 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 reason to act with haste: The daily pace of confirmed infections was failing to slow and his polling numbers have been plummeting.

While the political pressure at home mounts, he has also been rebuked abroad for his government’s quarantine measures on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that ultimately left hundreds infected and several dead.

Some critics say the school closure decision was made on short notice so as to dispel a growing perception of weak leadership and resulted from Abe’s desire to prioritize his political interests over those of single parents and double-income households.

Abe noted he was aware of the criticism of his administration’s measures but indicated he would make the decisions necessary “to protect the safety and livelihood of the people” and take the responsibility for its actions.

“I’ve been saying politics is a responsibility with consequences,” Abe said. “I have no intention to run away from the responsibility at all.”

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