National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Japan plays COVID-19 catch-up with rushed state-of-emergency bill

by Isabel Reynolds

Bloomberg

Two months after Japan confirmed its first case of COVID-19, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is finally setting up a legal framework that will let him declare a nationwide state of emergency if the outbreak worsens.

Like many of Abe’s responses to the crisis — from restricting visitors traveling from virus-hit areas to bolstering the local mask supply — the introduction of the state-of-emergency legislation comes long after other leaders took similar action.

The delays have fueled doubts over whether Japan is prepared to act decisively enough to be capable of holding the Tokyo Olympics — the world’s largest sporting event — in July.

“Japan didn’t have a legal system in place to tackle this properly,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. “Why is that only happening now? They should have done it much sooner.”

While Japan hasn’t had a surge in COVID-19 cases seen in places like South Korea, its approach so far has been marked by bureaucratic roadblocks and sudden reversals.

The Abe government waited until Feb. 1 to bar visitors with symptoms, tested only a tiny fraction of possible cases in the initial days, and moved suddenly last week to quarantine arrivals from China after the pace of infections there had begun to slow.

Abe announced a second package to help support the economy on Tuesday, but funds are set to come from reserves rather than extra spending.

The delays may be partly explained by a political system that places a high value on consensus and the measured judgment of ministry bureaucrats. But some blame complacency after Abe’s success in neutralizing opposition both inside and outside his government over the course of his record-setting seven years in power.

“They didn’t have a sense of crisis,” said former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who oversaw what was seen as a successful response to a novel influenza outbreak in 2009. “This is a long-running administration and they have the feeling that they can keep their grip on power whatever happens.”

Risks for Abe have increased as new cases pop up around the country, recession signals mount and his poll numbers slip to lows not seen since July 2018.

The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention issued Abe’s government a rare rebuke last month over its handling of cruise ship quarantine, with about one-in-five passengers and crew being confirmed as infected and seven having now died.

Excluding the around 700 people infected aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Japan had reported 567 cases as of early Wednesday, including 12 deaths, although health experts warn the country’s limited testing masks the true size of the outbreak.

The disease has infected more than 110,000 worldwide, leading to speculation that the Summer Olympics might have to be postponed, held without spectators or even canceled.

The bill approved by the Cabinet and submitted to the Diet on Tuesday is an update of legislation passed in the aftermath of a flu outbreak in 2009-10. Abe is seeking to push the bill through by the end of the week, Kyodo News said. In contrast, Italy declared a state of emergency on Jan. 31 after confirming its first two cases, while multiple U.S. states have also done so in recent days.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party faces difficulties with any legislation seen as potentially limiting human rights, in a country still haunted by its militarist past. Abe may be reluctant to embolden the opposition by seizing extra powers, especially with his support rate slipping. “I will take the effect on individual rights into full consideration when making a decision,” Abe said at the Diet on Monday regarding any emergency declarations.

A poll by national broadcaster NHK has shown voters are about evenly divided on whether Abe has been doing a good job of tackling the virus, and that his support rate has slipped two percentage points to 43 percent.

The legislation moves forward as Japan marks the anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that left about 20,000 people dead or missing. The then-ruling Democratic Party lost control of government in 2012 after widespread criticism of its response, opening the door for Abe and the LDP to reclaim power.

The delays may prove costly for Japan. Visitors from China hit a record of more than 920,000 in January, even as the outbreak reached a crisis point in Wuhan and spread around the country. Even before Japan banned arrivals from the hardest hit province of Hubei, on Feb. 1, travelers from the Wuhan area were believed to have already infected many in Japan.

When it dealt with the influenza outbreaks a decade ago, the government saw success; the death rate then was low compared with other countries. But Abe warned Monday of a need to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

“It was really tough 11 years ago, but the lessons have not been learned, and that’s why I’m angry,” said Masuzoe, the former minister. “It’s been a total failure.”

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