National

Japan to give ¥300,000 to struggling households as COVID-19 cases rise

Kyodo, Reuters, Jiji

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the global and national economies, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party agreed Friday that the government will provide ¥300,000 in cash to each household suffering from falling incomes amid the spread of the new coronavirus.

LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida disclosed the agreement to reporters following a meeting with Abe.

About 10 million of the nation's 58 million households are expected to be eligible for the cash program, a key pillar of an emergency economic package that the government plans to compile as soon as Tuesday.

The cash program will be funded by a supplementary budget for this fiscal year that the government wants to pass in the Diet before the Golden Week holiday period starts in early May.

The government will not set a household income limit for the tax-free cash handout, according to the officials.

"If we set an income limit, we would have to check individual incomes, which would take a lot of time," Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy, told a news conference. "Instead of that, we'll come up with an unprecedented way (to judge who should receive cash)."

Nishimura said recipients will be limited to those who are facing livelihood difficulties, and that civil servants, politicians and major corporate executives who have not been significantly affected by the economic impact of the virus outbreak, for example, will be excluded from the scheme.

The government will work out details, such as the level of income drop that would qualify households for the program and how applicants should file requests for the support with municipal governments, they said.

Abe has said that the government will provide cash not only to households but also to operators of small and midsized businesses that have seen their revenues drop.

The support is aimed at helping households and businesses get back on their feet "as soon as possible."

The government has also told regions that have suffered the most serious outbreaks of the coronavirus to save hospital beds for severely ill patients, while keeping those with milder or no symptoms at home or in hotels.

The directive from the government is the latest sign of concern about the growing strain on the nation's healthcare system.

Until now, Japan has been hospitalizing all coronavirus patients, regardless of whether they are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. But beds are already filling up in Tokyo and threaten to elsewhere, experts said this week.

Japan has so far been spared from the kind of explosive surge seen in parts of Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Nearly 2,800 cases and 73 deaths have been reported nationwide. Globally, coronavirus cases surpassed 1 million on Thursday, while deaths have topped 50,000.

A total of 89 people were newly found on Friday to have been infected, the highest number of infections in the country with 773 — a tiny figure compared to its core city population of nearly 14 million — but experts are worried about the rise in the percentage of cases that can't be traced.

Several people who attended a live music event in Shibuya Ward on March 20, including a performer, had tested positive, it was learned Friday.

The health ministry Thursday updated for the first time in about two weeks its map showing clusters of COVID-19 cases in the country. Places where five or more people were infected with the virus are shown on the map.

The number of clusters came to 26 across 14 of the country's 47 prefectures at the end of March, up from 13 in eight prefectures.

According to the revised map, Miyagi, Gunma, Ibaraki, Gifu, Kyoto and Oita were hit with clusters for the first time, with the combined number of cluster sites in the six prefectures coming to eight. Five more cluster sites in total were added in Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Hyogo.

Clusters tend to result from infections spreading at closed, crowded places involving close contact between people, ministry officials said, adding that such group infections have so far happened at places like medical and welfare facilities used by many elderly people, and places where people breathed heavily due to singing loudly or doing exercise.

After a week dominated by tension in the capital over whether and when the government might declare a state of emergency, Rakuten Inc. founder Hiroshi Mikitani resorted to Twitter on Friday to post that he and Masayoshi Son, founder of SoftBank Group, had shared the view in a phone conversation that Japan was in "an extremely critical situation."

"How can you say this is not an emergency situation? Mr. Abe, please declare a state of emergency right now!" Mikitani tweeted.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Thursday the metropolis would prioritize saving the lives of those in serious condition and ask people to stay at home. She said Tokyo was working with the government to secure accommodations for infected people living with families.

Abe said Friday that utilizing facilities that had been set up for the postponed Summer Olympics was under consideration.

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