National / Politics

Abe seeks to calm a nervous nation, vowing new steps amid coronavirus outbreak

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday sought to calm a nation upended by the coronavirus pandemic, vowing further steps to support health care infrastructure and seeking to placate concerns about newly enshrined powers to declare a state of emergency.

The nationally televised news conference from the Prime Minister’s Office came a day after the Diet passed legislation enabling the declaration of a state of emergency if the number of COVID-19 patients surges exponentially.

Abe said the government does not have immediate plans to make such a declaration and said leaders would be mindful of the consequences.

“The legislation is a contingency plan,” Abe said. “The government will consult with experts and exercise judgment carefully knowing that emergency actions can restrict private rights.

“But the situation is changing moment by moment. … If necessary, the government will follow procedures and take legal measures to protect people’s lives and health.”

Once declared, prefectural governors would be authorized to take restrictive actions such as requesting that residents stay inside or shutting down or reducing the use of schools, offices or other facilities. If such facilities refused to comply, prefectural governments would have the right to disclose their names as a way to seek enforcement.

On Saturday, Abe offered few new details and largely repeated statements made by other government officials and experts. The speed of infection spread in the country is not “explosive” and is much slower than other countries, he said, urging people to “remain vigilant.”

This week, the government approved a second stimulus package, worth ¥430 billion, to be allocated to small to medium-size businesses, hospitals preparing to accommodate a large number of patients, and working parents who need to temporarily leave work to care for children affected by school closures. The government also plans to offer ¥1.6 trillion in loans to help financially struggling companies.

Abe said the government and ruling parties are working on specific economic plans to support recovery once the pandemic is over, though he declined to give specifics.

“As the infection spreads around the world, world markets, including in Japan, are rattled, and a further downturn in the world economy is a concern,” Abe said. “The government will monitor the situation closely and continue to take necessary and sufficient economic and financial measures flexibly and without interruption.”

Abe also said Japan has made progress in testing capacity, saying the nation can now test more than 6,000 samples per day and that this will increase to 8,000 within this month. Additionally, 12,000 empty hospital beds and 3,000 ventilators are available to treat patients with serious conditions, he added.

Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, blasted Abe after the news conference, saying the prime minister did not explain why the number of tests actually done each day remains limited.

According to health ministry data, a total of 19,420 tests were done between Jan. 15 and March 6 nationwide.

Like many leaders around the globe, Abe is facing one the greatest leadership challenges of his tenure. He has been excoriated by critics for a slow response in the early stages of the outbreak and for underestimating the risk of mass infection through a move to quarantine about 3,700 people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Some critics speculate that Abe was reluctant to take aggressive action in an effort to salvage a planned state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Initially scheduled for April, the now postponed visit was seen as an opportunity for Abe to highlight his diplomatic prowess, having overseen an improvement in ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

Abe flatly denied in the news conference that the state visit prevented his administration from adopting tougher measures.

In bids to fight back against the criticism, Abe has jolted the nation with a series of surprise announcements, calling for schools to be closed across the country and for large events to be canceled, postponed or downsized.

The uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic has raised doubts about holding the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics as scheduled, as multiple international athletic competitions have been postponed or canceled.

Japanese government officials insisted this week that they are neither planning to cancel nor postpone the games, but International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said his organization will follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations

Regarding the Tokyo Games, Abe was defiant on Saturday, saying nothing has changed in Japan’s plan. U.S. President Donald Trump floated the idea of postponing the Olympics for a year and spoke with Abe this week. Referring to the conversation, Abe said the two leaders did not discuss changes to the plan for the games.

The news conference capped yet another turbulent week as the virus spreads domestically and around the world. In Japan, the increase in new infections accelerated, with nation marking more than 700 confirmed cases, not including those from the Diamond Princess. Nationwide school closures entered their second week, face masks and disinfectants remained in short supply and the Nikkei 225 benchmark dropped 14 percent in one week.

As the WHO made a formal declaration that the outbreak was a pandemic, the United States declared a state of emergency and Italy took the unprecedented step of locking down the whole country. People rushed to airports as the U.S. announced travel restrictions, and shoppers formed long lines outside of grocery stores to stock up in many parts of the world.

In Tokyo on Saturday, as Abe sought to wrap up the news conference, a few journalists vocally protested and demanded that he take more questions — he obliged. In his previous news conference on coronavirus measures two weeks ago, Abe spent about 10 minutes speaking and returned home immediately afterward, drawing criticism from some journalists.

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