Japan dodged surge in total fatalities during peak virus month

by Gearoid Reidy


Japan avoided a surge in overall fatalities during its deadliest month of the coronavirus pandemic, indicating the country has been successful in limiting the damage from COVID-19.

Mortality across the nation dropped by 3.5 percent in May from a year earlier, with Japan recording a total of 108,380 deaths from any cause, data released Tuesday by the health ministry show. The month, during which much of the country was under a state of emergency, saw the most deaths so far from COVID-19. Japan officially recorded 468 coronavirus-related fatalities in May, almost half its total to date of 1,001.

Japan’s virus approach, choosing to avoid mass-testing in the early phases of the outbreak, has raised questions about whether the impact of the epidemic may have been worse than reported. But the data suggests the country, which has the fewest reported deaths of any Group of Seven nation, isn’t overlooking fatalities from the pandemic to a large degree.

The results come as Japan is struggling to cope with a new surge of coronavirus cases across the country, while also resisting pressure to put restrictions on businesses that could further damage an economy that has already been pushed into recession. While Hong Kong and parts of Australia have reimposed tighter measures after cases surged in those regions, Japan has demurred.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has hailed Japan as a "good example” of a country that has kept fatality levels low.

"I think Japan is a success story,” Tedros said Monday. "If you take the death rate in Japan, even when the number of cases increase, they managed to keep the number of deaths at a minimum.”

Japan was under a state of emergency for much of May, only lifted nationwide on May 25. That may have helped contribute to the overall drop in deaths, with suicides and fatal road accidents falling as people stayed at home. The drop in mortality was particularly notable in Tokyo, which had 7 percent fewer deaths in May than an average year.

Concern over the virus situation in Japan is growing as cases have surged in recent weeks. An outbreak initially thought confined to nighttime entertainment areas in Tokyo has spread to workplaces and across the country. Many population centers have recorded their highest daily cases in the past few days, while Japan overall had almost 1,000 new cases Tuesday, a record.

The government has attempted to shift attention from the raw case numbers to the amount of serious infections, which remain low as many of those are primarily among younger people. However, fatality levels could increase as cases begin to spread to older communities.

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