Facing a worried nation on the brink of a potential dramatic spike in novel coronavirus patients, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday pleaded with residents to stay home to protect their lives to counter what he called “the biggest crisis since World War II.”
Abe’s news conference followed the official declaration of a state of emergency earlier in the day. The declaration, which became effective the same day and will continue until at least May 6, the end of the Golden Week holiday, covers Tokyo and Osaka, as well as Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures.
Noting that the country’s health care system is increasingly strained, Abe asked people to change their behavior by cutting back interactions with others by between 70 and 80 percent for a month. If the rate of infection remains the same in Tokyo, Abe warned that the number of patients could balloon to 10,000 in two weeks and 80,000 in one month.
“The situation is getting desperate,” he said. “In order for us to escape this emergency, the premise is to slash interaction among people between 70 and 80 percent. It is not easy … (but) everything is dependent on our behavior. I ask for your cooperation.”
He asked that people who do go out avoid crowded areas, practice social distancing and wear masks “to protect other people’s as well as your own lives.”
The decision reflects the central government’s profound sense of anxiety over the COVID-19 outbreak inside the country, which threatens to collapse the health care system, paralyze the economy and upend the livelihoods of millions of people.
“The most important thing, more than anything, is to change people’s behavior,” Abe said during a government task force meeting, asking for the public’s cooperation in complying with requests to avoid unnecessary outings. “According to an experts’ estimate, if all of us make an effort and reduce our interactions with others by at least 70 to 80 percent… we’ll be able to see the increase in infections peak and then slow down in two weeks,” Abe said.
The Abe administration, too, has been under intense pressure from a growing chorus of public health officials and lawmakers urging the government to take swift action before it’s too late. For about three weeks, the government hesitated to make the bold decision because of its impact on the economy, even though a revised law had laid the groundwork for it to do so.
“When it comes to making the declaration, it’s a fact that we need to be carefully prepared to avoid confusion regarding the state of emergency and the measures to accommodate those who are infected,” Abe said. “We’ve reached today’s decision after we’ve collectively taken these points into consideration.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday that the government’s expert panel has determined that one month is necessary to determine whether the spread of the coronavirus would come to an end and the declaration would have a positive impact overall.
The declaration authorizes the governors in the seven prefectures to request that residents stay home except for essential tasks, such as grocery shopping and seeking medical care. As for businesses, the prefectural governments would also be able to request that they “thoroughly implement infection control measures.”
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike requested that residents of the capital — with a population of more than 13 million — isolate themselves until May 6, starting at midnight Tuesday.
However, basic infrastructure — electricity, water supply and gas — as well as businesses such as supermarkets, convenience stores, drugstores, banks, post offices and public transportation, will not be impacted by the declaration.
Abe assured lawmakers that the government would not request train and airline operators to reduce their services.
At the same time, he called the prospect of the government directly compensating all individual enterprises affected by the declaration “unrealistic,” highlighting other supportive measures such as financing and cash payments for small and midsized businesses.
The governors would additionally be able to ask that schools, universities, child care facilities, movie theaters, music venues and other facilities temporarily close. If institutions disobey the requests, prefectural governments could then instruct them to close and also disclose the entities’ names, essentially shaming them publicly.
But there are no other penalties against such refusals.
Even under a state of emergency, prefectural governors do not have the legal power to enforce extremely restrictive actions and cannot lock down cities like in the U.S. or Europe.
Such requests from the prefectural government are understood to be taken as a “demand” with a strong expectation that those asked will obey the directives.
In the event of a surge in patients, prefectural governors would also be able to requisition land to build temporary medical facilities and could do so forcefully if a landowner refuses.
Similarly, prefectural governments will have the power to order medicine and food suppliers to sell their goods to authorities. If suppliers refuse, prefectural governments would be able to forcibly procure those goods from them.
The administration consulted with infectious disease experts and the prime minister fielded questions from lawmakers with the Diet earlier Tuesday to fulfill the prerequisites for taking the extraordinary action.
Ahead of declaring the state of emergency, the Cabinet on Tuesday approved a record-shattering ¥108 trillion emergency economic measure.
Abe on Monday said the government would bolster the nationwide capacity for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to 20,000 per day, increase hospital beds that prioritize the treatment of patients with serious symptoms from 28,000 to 50,000, secure about 15,000 ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients and push manufacturers to increase production.