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As the nation reels from a pandemic that has paralyzed everyday life for many, some prefectures that adopted blanket measures for the state of emergency are now accelerating efforts to wind them down.

But by easing emergency restrictions, those prefectures must face the risk of allowing a respiratory disease devoid of a cure to regain strength.

The public and the central government are pressuring prefectures and municipalities to strike a delicate balance between maintaining public safety and restoring economic activity. But the rush to return to normalcy is leaving critical questions unanswered, including whether governments can reimpose restrictions fast enough if the novel coronavirus regains momentum.

While the government is expected to publicize its guidelines soon, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura last week announced the prefecture’s own threshold for retracting requests for restrictions on outings and commerce, setting an example for other prefectures. Osaka has roughly 1,720 COVID-19 patients but its daily case count fell to nine on Friday.

The Osaka Prefectural Government listed three criteria for easing shutdown requests and said that seven consecutive days of compliance would allow measures to be eased.

The criteria are: recording fewer than 10 untraceable infections per day; keeping the rate for positive polymerase chain reaction tests under 7 percent; and keeping the rate for hospital beds occupied by seriously ill COVID-19 patients under 60 percent.

The criteria were met on Saturday. So if all goes well, Osaka could make a decision on lifting its restriction requests on Friday.

Yoshimura said the prefecture would reinstate restrictions if the number of untraceable infections grows by 1 from the previous week, there are at least five patients with untraceable infections, and positive PCR tests hit 7 percent or higher.

“We are asking the public for various kinds of self-restraint but we are slowly easing them while putting infectious-disease measures in place,” he said in a news conference earlier this month. “We have to explore ways to coexist with this virus.”

The ceiling of Japan's longest shopping arcade in Tenjinbashi-suji, Osaka, is opened for air ventilation amid the coronavirus epidemic. | KYODO
The ceiling of Japan’s longest shopping arcade in Tenjinbashi-suji, Osaka, is opened for air ventilation amid the coronavirus epidemic. | KYODO

Tokyo, which has the highest COVID-19 count in the country, is also considering releasing the outline of its exit strategy, but Gov. Yuriko Koike on Friday did not say when and warned that just even talking about it might encourage residents to relax before the national state of emergency ends on May 31.

Meanwhile, several prefectures with fewer infections have already given businesses permission to reopen by Thursday, including Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Tottori, Shimane, Kagawa and Kochi. Others, like Niigata and Wakayama, have partially lifted restrictions. Fukushima and a few other prefectures will keep restrictions in place through the end of the month.

Miyagi, which has reported no new infections since April 29, lifted business shutdown requests on Thursday after the Golden Week holidays. Gov. Yoshihiro Murai acknowledged that businesses were pressuring him to do so to reverse the prefecture’s economic slump.

Citing the same reason, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last week that the state of emergency might be lifted before May 31, depending on the situation.

In the meantime, the governors will face the difficult task of judging when to swiftly reactivate restrictions if COVID-19 infections swell again.

Hokkaido offers a cautionary tale on this issue.

Before Abe declared the initial state of emergency covering seven prefectures on April 7, Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki had issued one of his own on Feb. 28, directing residents to shelter in place and close businesses.

After this reduced the number of virus patients to single digits, Suzuki called off the emergency on March 19. But infections soon started to pick up again, forcing him to reimpose restrictions on April 12.

Before Suzuki lifted the measures, Hokkaido’s daily record was 15 cases on Feb. 27. After the measures were reimposed, a new record of 45 infections was set on April 23.

The governor warned that a resurgence could happen anywhere.

“What we have to learn from the ‘second wave’ is that we were able to suppress the first wave in a way thanks to cooperation by the residents in modifying their behavior,” he said Friday.

“But the movement of people from the areas where the virus was spreading… might have caused the infection to spread further,” he said. “We’re experiencing a situation in which the movement of people has caused a ‘second wave’ even if we’ve already suppressed the virus with preventative measures.”

Bearing that in mind, Murai, the Miyagi governor, released a joint statement with eight other prefectural and municipal leaders encouraging residents to avoid traveling to Kanto, Kansai, Hokkaido and other regions with high numbers of patients.

The effectiveness of such requests, which depend on voluntary cooperation — Japanese leaders lack the authority to actually enforce business shutdowns with penalties as in the United States and Europe — remains questionable.

“Things will get out of control if we relax our attention,” he said.

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