Tokyo stands at a critical juncture this weekend as a request for residents to isolate themselves aims to prevent a major spike in cases of the novel coronavirus and help avoid a citywide lockdown.
“The city is on the verge of the point at which we might still be able to prevent an explosive rise in coronavirus cases,” Gov. Yuriko Koike said Friday.
“If that occurs, the city’s hospitals would be overwhelmed and the lives of residents could be put in serious danger,” she said. “We need people to be aware of the risk and help us avoid that situation at all costs.”
On Wednesday the governor called upon residents to stay inside, work remotely if possible and avoid all nonessential outings this weekend. She added on Friday that similar steps should be taken throughout next week as well, though she emphasized that the city is not asking residents to stop going to grocery stores or pharmacies to buy food, medicine and other essential goods.
The governor’s remarks came after the city experienced four record-breaking days in a row with 47 new cases reported on Thursday, 41 on Wednesday, 17 on Tuesday and 16 on Monday. It was the first time more than 40 cases had been reported in a single day in any of the 47 prefectures.
During a government panel meeting last week, experts said the capital is “at significant risk of further outbreaks.” The health ministry estimated Tokyo could see upwards of 530 cases between now and April 8, and when the epidemic peaks, it might have to deal with up to 700 daily patients who need intensive care or respirators as well as more than twenty thousand who need treatment for pneumonia.
As of late Thursday, Tokyo had recorded 299 cases and five deaths, while 1,384 cases and 47 deaths had been reported nationwide.
It was just earlier this week that Tokyo announced an additional set of countermeasures spanning three weeks to prevent further spread of the virus, including the promotion of social distancing, the cancellation or postponement of countless public events and the provision of financial aid for businesses.
Gov. Koike revealed further countermeasures on Friday — most of which are extensions of similar steps already being taken — in addition to the capital’s partial or complete closure of several parks, zoos, aquariums, museums and other public facilities until April 12.
Municipal leaders have the authority to close office buildings, parks and other facilities but cannot compel residents to stay indoors or punish those who fail to comply. The declaration of a national emergency, however, would give them authority to do so.
In an effort to reach young people, the city aims to use social media to spread information about the risks associated with the novel coronavirus. While younger people who get infected are more likely to experience light symptoms and recover quickly, they can also infect the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions for whom the virus could be life threatening.
Last week, throngs of people ignored the warnings and flocked to parks to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom.
“People in Japan don’t seem to realize that being stuck inside or missing out on hanami or your graduation ceremony means nothing compared to the countless people who are suffering the symptoms of the coronavirus, not to mention those who died because of it and their families,” said Kansai University professor emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto.
Cities around the world have imposed varying degrees of restrictions on residents to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities in northern Italy, for example, have fined people who fail to comply and mobilized law enforcement to enforce restrictions.
Because lawmakers in Japan lack that authority, Miyamoto said, a lockdown could prove meaningless even if ordered.
“Here in Japan, a ‘lockdown’ is nothing more than a strong request. It’s the governor trying to get residents to stay put by asking nicely,” he said. “But there will always be people who don’t listen and, because of them, the entire city is at risk.”
Whether the virus spreads over the next few days — and how much — will largely determine whether Abe declares a national emergency and Koike subsequently puts the capital on lockdown, said urban planning expert Hiroo Ichikawa.
“Despite the city’s strong warnings, young people will probably go out this weekend because they know they’re less likely to experience severe symptoms,” he said. “This weekend, and the first half of next week, will be pivotal for Tokyo.”
Based on health ministry estimates, the daily number of cases in Tokyo is expected to double by next week.
“If those predictions are accurate, we could start seeing daily counts in the hundreds in Tokyo,” Ichikawa said. “At that point, a lockdown is the next logical step.”
However, it’s unlikely that Koike will impose a lockdown before Abe declares a state of emergency, Ichikawa said, adding that the government will make its decision bearing in mind the situation of cities throughout the country, and not just in the capital.
As of midnight Thursday, Japan began banning foreign travelers from Iran and 21 European countries, including Germany and Italy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced earlier this week that anybody who has been in any of the countries in question within 14 days will be turned away. Japan has also restricted entry from South Korea and parts of China.
Abe also said the government will begin asking arrivals from several countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa to self-quarantine for two weeks, including Japanese nationals. The request will apply to 11 countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Israel and Qatar, and stay in effect from midnight Friday until the end of April.
Japan will also suspend visas issued to citizens of those countries.
The formation of a special government coronavirus task force on Thursday paved the way for the prime minister to declare a national emergency over the epidemic, though it says its not considering such a move quite yet. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government established its own task force immediately after that.
The Asahi Shimbun reported Friday that the government’s task force is considering a draft that, if Abe declares a state of emergency, would lead to prefectures with a high number of infections to be locked down for 21 days.
Hours later, Koike called on the governors of four neighboring prefectures—Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba and Yamanashi — to ask their residents to avoid nonessential travel to Tokyo this weekend. Koike submitted an emergency request to the central government later that night, urging the Abe to help improve border protection measures, hospital capacity, procure quarantine facilities, clarify school closure guidelines and increase financial aid to the private sector, among other things.
“Tokyo seeks to work together with the central government to avoid an explosive rise in the coronavirus cases and the worst-case scenario of a citywide lockdown,” Koike said Friday.