Infectious disease experts are feeling a sense of distrust with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, amid signs that the disease is beginning to spread again.
Concerns have risen because the Prime Minister’s Office has frequently ignored expert advice on the disease as he grew impatient over the uncontrollable crisis.
On May 22, days before the government fully lifted a state of emergency over the pandemic, Abe and members of his Cabinet waited for information on new infection cases in Tokyo. When they learned that Tokyo marked only three new cases that day, health minister Katsunobu Kato said to Abe, “We’ve won.”
“We haven’t seen the results from neighboring constituencies,” Abe replied, urging Kato to wait for numbers to arrive from the prefectures around Tokyo. But he signaled a sense of relief over the low infection numbers in the capital, as they indicated that economic activity could resume in the country.
Since the nation reported its first coronavirus case in mid-January, the prime minister has grappled with the conflicting goals of containing the virus and maintaining economic activity.
Infectious disease experts, believing coronavirus prevention to be of the highest importance, had called for lockdowns. Meanwhile, those close to Abe were consistently skeptical of powerful measures, fearing potential damage to the economy.
The prime minister initially prioritized coronavirus prevention measures, declaring a state of emergency over some parts of the country on April 7. He expanded the measure nationwide on April 16.
The transition to the nationwide state of emergency was triggered mainly by fears of an uncontrollable spike in the number of coronavirus cases.
Abe, however, shifted to putting priority on the economy once it became clear that the pandemic was causing severe economic damage.
Conflicts of opinion between the Prime Minister’s Office and infectious disease experts became apparent in May. The Prime Minister’s Office pressured a government panel of experts to drop from its proposal a call to keep containment measures in place for at least a year.
After the state of emergency was extended May 4, the two sides engaged in a heated debate over what standards to adopt for determining when to lift the measure.
Disease experts proposed that the state of emergency be lifted when the number of new cases in the preceding week dropped to 0.5 or lower per 100,000 people, a standard that one government source described as considerably tougher than those adopted in the West.
When economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura introduced the idea at a government meeting, Takaya Imai, special adviser to the prime minister, strongly opposed it, saying the state of emergency “won’t be lifted in Tokyo.”
The Prime Minister’s Office ultimately rejected the proposal. An aide to Abe said at the time, “Experts have no consideration for the economy.”
The office instead decided to consider comprehensively whether to lift the state of emergency when the number of cases per 100,000 people fell to around one or lower, a policy that made it possible for the government to lead the decision-making process.
The policy enabled the government to lift the state of emergency fully on May 25, although some prefectures had 0.5 or more cases per 100,000 people.
The Prime Minister’s Office also moved unilaterally in deciding to lift the state of emergency on May 25.
The government’s expert panel had planned to determine whether to lift the measure on May 28, based on analysis of the extent of infections.
On May 21, however, Abe told reporters that he would push forward the plan, saying that “it will be possible to lift the state of emergency if current conditions continue.” He made the move without consulting experts beforehand.
“It was completely led by the Prime Minister’s Office,” a government source said. “The prime minister was unable to continue pushing back against those concerned about the economy.”
Experts have grown dissatisfied with the government. The final nail in the coffin came from its decision to abolish the expert panel.
Takaji Wakita, chairman of the panel, released a proposal for a new expert organization on June 24 to deal with a potential second wave of infections. Around the same time, however, Nishimura announced plans to scrap the panel, without alerting Wakita beforehand.
“If Wakita’s proposal had been reported by the media, there would have been criticism toward the government,” a member of the expert panel said. “Nishimura probably wanted to dilute the impact of the proposal.”
“That’s fine,” the expert said, stoically. “That’s politics.”
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