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Abe can now declare a state of emergency over COVID-19 — but will he?

by Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo

With Friday’s enactment of a revised law, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can declare a state of emergency for the coronavirus outbreak. But will he actually take this step?

Based on recent statements made by Abe and other government officials, an emergency declaration does not seem imminent.

Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who was put in charge of the legal revision, has called an emergency declaration “a last resort,” acknowledging that a series of measures that would be taken under it to fight the virus would restrict people’s rights.

With the Tokyo Olympics about four months away, Japan has been desperate to contain the spread of the outbreak and consistent in stressing that the games will be held as scheduled.

A state of emergency is defined by the government as “a situation in which the capacity to provide medical care will reach its limit and people’s lives and health will be put at risk unless measures are taken.”

The government revised the law on new types of influenza and infectious diseases, which took effect in 2013, to include the new coronavirus that was first detected in Wuhan, central China, late last year.

To apply the amended law, effective for two years, the health minister first needs to report to the prime minister that infections with the new coronavirus are feared to become “rampant.” A government headquarters will then be set up to come up with countermeasures in line with the law.

Abe does not have the freedom to declare a state of emergency at his own discretion. The prime minister needs to seek input from an advisory panel comprising medical and public health experts, who would determine whether the situation calls for an emergency declaration.

There are two criteria that need to be met: whether people’s lives and health will be severely undermined and whether the rapid and nationwide spread of the virus will have a grave impact on daily life and the economy.

If the advisory panel judges it necessary to make a declaration, the prime minister will do so by determining which areas should be targeted, most likely on a prefectural basis, and for how long. The Diet also needs to be notified in advance.

Such a declaration enables prefectural governors to call for specific action to prevent the spread of the virus.

For instance, they can demand that local residents stay indoors, ask for events to be canceled and restrict the use of schools and facilities where large numbers of people gather.

They will also be allowed to expropriate private land and facilities to provide medical care if their initial request is refused without a good reason.

During parliamentary deliberations, one of the focal points was on the government’s assessment of the outbreak and whether it has determined the spread of the virus to be rampant in the country.

“There have to be clusters confirmed in a considerable number of prefectures and infections need to be more widespread than now,” Nishimura said on Wednesday.

The number of domestic cases has topped 1,400, including about 700 from the virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama port in February.

Infections have been confirmed in 35 of the 47 prefectures as of Friday. Of the 35, Hokkaido and Aichi are the only two with over 100 cases, while most have single-digit numbers.

Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki has already declared a state of emergency through March 19, but it is not legally binding. He has asked residents to stay indoors for the third weekend in a row.

Symptoms of the new coronavirus are often mild but it can cause serious illness, with 1 in 5 people who catch it needing hospital care, according to the World Health Organization.

The mortality rate for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new virus, is higher than for influenza. The rate for seasonal influenza is well below 0.1 percent, the Geneva-based U.N. body said.

Globally, the WHO has called for a deeper sense of crisis, calling the virus a pandemic, and uncertainty looms over how soon the outbreak will subside.

A government panel of medical experts said in late February that the next week or two would be critical in terms of whether Japan can prevent a surge in domestic infections.

After the two-week period passed, the panel said March 9 that Japan appeared to be reining in infections with no explosive increase reported. But it said it was too early to relax measures.

The government panel is expected to update its assessment on the domestic situation around March 19. Abe has requested organizers scrap, cancel or scale down large sports and cultural events until then.

One of the members of the panel, Shigeru Omi of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization, said a key point to watch is whether infection routes can be traced as cases rise.

“As of March 13, does the current situation meet the two criteria (for declaring a state of emergency)? I believe the answer is no,” Omi told a session of the Upper House before it passed the legislation.

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