National

A dispatch from the heart of Japan’s coronavirus epidemic

Tensions run high inside the pressure cooker of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's press club

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff writer

During a crisis, the absence of reliable information breeds distrust and frustration.

The same tendency can be seen among journalists assigned to cover the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, where disputes over restrictive privacy rights and disjointed data aggregation have spurred harsh exchanges between reporters and city officials about the capital’s handling of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The tensions came to a head in mid-April, around the time nosocomial infections began disrupting hospitals and the capital was shifting its focus toward contact-tracing and cluster-chasing.

Reporters in the metropolitan government press club need to know who is becoming infected, how many hospital beds are available and how many tests are being conducted. They need this information every day.

But city officials don’t always have the answer.

“We can’t do our job if you don’t do yours. We need you to do better,” one journalist told officials during a daily briefing on new cases in April.

Journalists have a heightened role during a crisis. People rely on newspapers, television, radio and online media for news that is comprehensive, accurate and current. And they, in turn, have to rely on the city for certain information.

Officials, on the other hand, were faced with the bureaucratic nightmare of gathering it.

Not only are hospital staff understandably preoccupied, many patients are refusing to give the city permission to disclose personal information.

“We understand your frustrations. We’re using the resources we have to gather as much information as we can as quickly as possible,” Tokyo health officials often said in response. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Most recently, heavy criticism has been leveled at Tokyo, as well as the central government, over its comparatively low volume of testing. Journalists have been hounding city officials for information on the number of polymerase chain reaction tests conducted in the capital.

So it came as a surprise last month when the city’s website showed that the number of tests conducted over the previous two weeks had mysteriously gone up after lower figures had already been reported. There were accusations that the city was inflating numbers to silence critics.

But Tokyo officials quickly explained that there was simply a delay in the reporting of testing data from private medical facilities.

The number of PCR tests conducted in private hospitals and medical facilities was being reported once a week, whereas public hospitals were reporting those figures daily. In other words, the data from the private facilities had been tacked on retroactively to produce one combined figure.

On top of that, Tokyo’s PCR test total includes multiple tests conducted on the same individual. Officials said the overlapping figures may account for up to 10 percent of the testing figures reported by public facilities. They could not comment on private facilities.

Time and again, journalists have urged the city to have private facilities report testing numbers every day. Experts, scientists and researchers have said repeatedly that it’s impossible to understand the extent or trajectory of the outbreak without knowing how many people have been tested.

But metropolitan government officials say that’s difficult. The communication system they’ve developed since the first appearance of the contagion understandably prioritizes the reporting of new cases and deaths. Pivoting to a system that also accounts for the number of tests that have been conducted in both public and private facilities on a daily basis, they said, would take time.

As journalists have pushed the city for months to release more detailed information, officials have been responding to these requests gradually — in some cases by subverting the restrictions that were limiting them from releasing information before, and in others by making it clear to the media and public where data is still lacking.

Ideally, as the understanding between metropolitan government officials and journalists slowly improves, information will make its way to the public faster and more efficiently.

The press club began organizing daily briefings at the beginning of April, when Tokyo started logging consecutive record-breaking days with new cases consistently in the triple digits.

When the virus began to spread rapidly in the capital, Gov. Yuriko Koike’s prescheduled weekly news conferences became increasingly crowded with foreign media and other unfamiliar faces.

It was during the first week of April that Koike, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other top Japanese officials began wearing masks during public appearances.

Soon after that, the press club placed bottles of hand sanitizer at every entrance, reduced the number of chairs available during news conferences, and began requiring the use of masks — especially when cameras were involved.

For the journalists in the press club, it was a tacit reminder that writing about a global pandemic doesn’t grant one immunity to it.

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