National / Science & Health

Tokyo inches toward lockdown as virus cases climb and national emergency looms

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff writer

Tokyo is on edge after Gov. Yuriko Koike called on residents Wednesday night to stay inside, work remotely and avoid nonessential outings this weekend to avoid an explosive rise in the number of novel coronavirus infections.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will reportedly announce 47 new cases of infection Thursday, marking four record-breaking days in a row since 16 additional cases were reported Monday, 17 on Tuesday and 41 on Wednesday.

“It’s crucial that we encourage awareness among the people around us, and figure out what we can do together to overcome these circumstances,” Koike said during a news conference Wednesday night.

Wednesday’s announcement by the city urging residents to avoid nonessential travel over the weekend was echoed the following day by Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures. Koike also called on Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures to ask their residents to refrain from traveling to Tokyo this weekend.

On Thursday, at which point Japan had seen over 2,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and over 50 deaths, including those from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the central government created a special task force headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to devise ways for the country to better respond to the outbreak. The announcement paved the way for Abe to declare a state of emergency under a recently revised law, although the government said it is not considering such a move just yet.

Koike announced on the same day that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government would mirror the central government and create a special task force as well.

“It’s likely the prime minister will declare a national emergency,” said Koji Wada, a professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare. “If and when he does, municipal leaders will have significantly greater authority when asking residents to stay put.”

While prefectural governors can close office buildings, parks and other facilities that belong to the city — or even ask private businesses and transit operators to temporarily shut down — they don't have the legal authority to compel residents to stay indoors, or punish them if they don’t comply.

Yet Koike on Monday mentioned the possibility of a citywide lockdown for the first time earlier this week, saying it may become “the only option left” if social distancing measures fail to prevent COVID-19 from spreading further.

Tokyo was set to record over 250 cases and at least five deaths as of Thursday evening. With 41 new cases Wednesday, Tokyo became the first prefecture to report more than 40 cases in a single day.

During a government panel last week, experts said the capital is “at significant risk of further outbreaks,” and the health ministry estimated it could see upwards of 530 cases between now and April 8.

On the ground, however, life in Tokyo seems to be business as usual.

Though numerous businesses have asked their employees to work from home or stagger their commute, crowds continue to gather in all the usual places. Over the weekend, despite the city warning against it, thousands of people flocked to local parks to see cherry blossoms in full bloom.

The metropolitan government announced Monday an additional set of countermeasures spanning the next three weeks that aim to contain the virus from spreading further within the city, including the promotion of social distancing through social media, the cancellation or postponement of scores of public events and the provision of financial aid for local businesses.

It introduced a further step on Thursday, announcing that a number of public facilities would be partially closed or closed completely until April 12. Ueno Park and Yoyogi park, among others, will be partially closed while many other attractions in the city will be temporarily shut down completely.

As the situation continues to worsen, Koike said that cities around the world may serve as models for what a lockdown in Tokyo might look like.

“Tokyo has never experienced a situation like this,” the governor said Wednesday.

“Cities in other countries are halting transit and prohibiting residents from going outside in a bid to avoid a collapse of their health care system,” she said. “We need to act now to avoid that situation.”

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