Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday evening pressed for cooperation from all citizens in the fight against the spreading coronavirus following his decision to expand the state of emergency nationwide.
In the news conference from the Prime Minister’s Office, Abe again emphasized his push to slash human-to-human contact by 70 percent to 80 percent, saying the move is necessary to avoid overwhelming the health care system.
“The situation is very dire,” Abe said. “I ask everyone again. Please refrain from going outside. Please avoid having contact with people as much as possible. That will protect the medical care system and thus save many lives. … We’ll overcome this together with you all.”
The prime minister, alarmed by the prefecture-to-prefecture spread of the virus, made the decision Thursday to broaden areas covered by the state of emergency to all 47 prefectures, effective through May 6. More than 10,000 people, including those from the virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship, have been infected with COVID-19 in the country and over 200 people have died.
In the news conference, he apologized for but justified his sudden policy shift from an initial plan to distribute ¥300,000 per qualified household to ¥100,000 per person with no income restrictions. The turnabout followed a strong push from the Liberal Democratic Party's ruling coalition partner, Komeito, which was deeply dissatisfied with the former plan.
Finance Minister Taro Aso said Friday the handout should be ready by next month and is available to all residents, including foreign nationals, but they still need to apply.
The details will be available next week following a Cabinet meeting.
The nationwide state of emergency declaration reinforces that the coronavirus threat has entered a new phase and punctures a faint sense of optimism that had pervaded areas with a relatively low number of infections. It sends out a warning that they, too, could see their health care systems overrun by the virus if they aren't prepared.
At the same time, the declaration also could raise more questions and cause frustration due to any coordination-related issues between Tokyo and local governments, especially over the impact of voluntary business closures and the funding source of compensation.
Abe already declared a state of emergency on April 7 covering Tokyo, Osaka, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Hyogo and Fukuoka, and pleaded with residents in those areas to slash human-to-human contact by 70 percent to 80 percent so that "the increase in infections (would) peak and slow down in two weeks."
But human-to-human contact has not fallen to that level so far, and residents in prefectures under the state of emergency have streamed into prefectures not subjected to the declaration, raising fears of a further spread of the virus. Some prefectures, such as Aichi and Ishikawa, had already declared their own states of emergency.
While making the declaration Thursday night, the prime minister newly listed six prefectures — including Kyoto, Ibaraki and Hokkaido — as areas where the coronavirus is as rampant as in the seven prefectures already under the state of emergency. Abe also expressed his concern over the potential for a surge in cases due to the Golden Week holiday, which runs from late April to early May.
“We ask all prefectures to urge their residents ahead of the Golden Week holiday absolutely not to move across borders to make unnecessary and nonurgent visits to their parents’ homes and to travel,” Abe said Thursday night at a government task force meeting.
“We additionally ask them to take appropriate actions, such as entry restrictions, if there’s a risk that people could congregate in places like sightseeing facilities.”
Some governors, however, were perplexed by yet another surprise announcement from Abe.
Niigata Gov. Hideyo Hanazumi told reporters Thursday that he had not expected the state of emergency to cover the whole country.
Some prefectures are also worried about potential economic damage since they may have to ask firms to close, even in areas where the number of COVID-19 patients is low. With coffers varying from one prefecture to the next, many may not be able to allocate enough funding to compensate businesses that temporarily close, which could disrupt concerted efforts to curb the speed of the virus's transmission.
The National Governors' Association on Friday prodded the central government to indemnify businesses for losses if they agreed to close down .
The declaration authorizes governors 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.”
However, basic infrastructure — electricity, water supply and gas — will not be impacted by the declaration. Businesses such as supermarkets, drug stores, banks and post offices will remain open.
The governors would additionally be able to ask that schools, universities, movie theaters, music venues, pubs 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.
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 the kinds of restrictive actions and lockdowns like those seen in the United States and Europe.
In some municipalities, local governments have only requested that restaurants shorten their business hours.
Such requests from the prefectural government are understood to be taken as a “demand” with a strong expectation that those asked will voluntarily 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.
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