With the COVID-19 pandemic having challenged leaders worldwide to strike a balance between public health and the economy, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga seems to hold the view that any cure involving a loss of economic momentum would be worse than the disease itself.

Apparently leaning further into the position than his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, the prime minister has resisted completely dialing back the Go To programs he helped engineer, keen to champion economic recovery.

While insisting that citizens maintain rigorous personal hygiene practices, Suga has refrained from making recommendations on traveling or eating at restaurants — the two key pillars of the Go To stimulus programs.

“The government’s role is to protect the lives and the livelihoods of the people,” Suga stated during a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee on Nov. 25. “The government is doing everything it can to protect jobs and keep businesses alive amid the pandemic.”

His hesitancy to shift emphasis away from the stimulus program, aimed at invigorating consumption, illustrates the contrast between decision-making under his fledgling administration and that of his predecessor.

It is also increasingly frustrating the minister overseeing the government’s virus measures, and public health experts who have repeatedly urged the administration to take bolder action or risk seeing the nation’s health care system overrun by COVID-19 patients.

Cabinet ministers have yielded to the prime minister’s priorities, with an eye on prospects for the Olympics and the possibility of a snap election on the horizon. Only after infectious disease experts in the government’s own virus subcommittee spoke out were Suga’s ambitions for an economic success story reined in.

“There’s an obvious difference, in that Abe wasn’t particularly invested in tourism policies, whereas Suga is,” says Harukata Takenaka, a professor focusing on Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “In the previous administration, Mr. Suga was just one member of the Cabinet. Now, as prime minister, he has tremendous influence toward policymaking.”

When Suga succeeded Abe in September, he explicitly stated that his mission was to contain any “explosive” surge of cases, such as those seen in the United States and Europe, while gradually reviving social and economic activities.

But Suga’s emphasis on the economic factors has been obvious, doubling down on the course he carved out under Abe. The 71-year-old is well known for sticking to his beliefs and pushing through policy agendas despite objections from bureaucrats, even daring to use thinly veiled threats of demotion to get the job done.

During the first wave of cases, the Abe administration was under immense pressure to declare a state of emergency. Nevertheless, Suga was wary of making the declaration, considering its likely impact on the economy and especially on the economically vulnerable.

It was Yasutoshi Nishimura, the state minister in charge of the government’s novel coronavirus response, who advocated for taking the unprecedented step, according to a report on Japan’s handling of the pandemic by Tokyo-based think tank Asia Pacific Initiative. Abe ultimately tilted in favor of Nishimura’s position.

Prime Minister Suga has been was a leading advocate for the government’s Go To campaigns, aimed at salvaging the tourism, transportation and restaurant industries with subsidies of up to 50%. | KYODO
Prime Minister Suga has been was a leading advocate for the government’s Go To campaigns, aimed at salvaging the tourism, transportation and restaurant industries with subsidies of up to 50%. | KYODO

When Abe lifted the declaration, after about a month, the government turned to rescuing the nation’s fragile economy, shaken by what had been, in practice, a virtual lockdown. Prefectures began to revive their economies and recommence public life as data emerged suggesting the nation had endured its first wave and flattened the curve.

Suga, in particular, was a leading advocate for the government’s Go To campaigns, aimed at salvaging the tourism, transportation and restaurant industries. The signature Go To Travel program offers subsidies of up to 50% of travel costs, with the government boasting that about 40 million people had made use of it by late November.

As of last Thursday, 202 people who took advantage of the campaign had been infected with COVID-19, said Shigeki Iwai, a state minister at the tourism ministry, in a parliament hearing.

Although cases spiked again in July, in what some described as “a second wave,” Suga — at the time chief Cabinet secretary — would not entertain a delay to the Go To Travel program’s July 22 launch. Only at the last minute did the Abe administration decide to exclude Tokyo from the campaign, amid a pronounced rise in new cases in the capital. The Suga administration added the city and its 13 million residents into the program on Oct. 1.

Suga’s inclination to favor the economy was bolstered when he took office as prime minister in September, with relatively low numbers of new cases daily — between the upper 200s and the upper 600s nationwide — propelling him to promote the Go To programs at full steam.

Since the previous administration, Nishimura has worked closely with a group of infectious disease experts headed by Dr. Shigeru Omi, head of the government subcommittee on COVID-19.

While Nishimura has embraced public health measures more actively than the prime minister, Suga has kept him in place as minister leading the government’s COVID-19 response for the sake of continuity. Nonetheless, Nishimura’s influence, like that of health minister Norihisa Tamura, seems to have been eclipsed by that of an economy-focused prime minister.

Then, as the temperature began to dip and the movement of people increased, the tally of new infections each day nationwide began to turn upward.

On Nov. 5, it rose above 1,000 for the first time since August. Cases have since continued to climb, shattering records on multiple days in mid- and late-November to rise to 2,684 on Saturday.

Alarmed by the surge, an advisory board for the health ministry warned that outpatients with ailments unrelated to the virus may be turned away and surgeries halted if COVID-19 cases continued to increase and medical resources were depleted.

“If the situation remains unchanged, there’s a strong possibility that infections will spread further at an even more rapid pace,” said Dr. Takaji Wakita, head of the advisory council, on Nov. 19. “The situation remains grave.”

Dr. Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, even said the Go To programs had contributed to people letting down their guard against the virus in late November.

The government subcommittee panel on COVID-19, which is made up of infectious disease experts, a mix of social science academics and a governor, also pressed the administration to consider reviewing the Go To program on Nov. 20.

The situation emboldened Nishimura and allowed him to recover some influence within the Suga administration. He even alluded to the possibility of another state of emergency being declared if the pace of new infections did not subside within three weeks.

Only then — and on the urging of Nishimura, who in turn was heeding the dire assessments of infectious disease experts — did Suga inch toward backtracking on the Go To campaigns. The prime minister announced the following day that new bookings through the Go To Travel program to areas with rapidly rising cases would be discontinued, and that the government would ask prefectural governors to consider suspending the provision of Go To Eat discount coupons. A few days later, he made travel into the cities of Osaka and Sapporo ineligible for subsidies under the program.

The subcommittee was dissatisfied with the exclusion of only inbound tourism from the campaign, while travel by residents of cities with growing numbers of cases continued to be incentivized. On Nov. 25 it recommended the exclusion of outbound travel, as well, from areas where infections are spreading rapidly.

On Friday, Omi, the head of the government subcommittee, gave a blunt warning. “The heart of the problem is that it has become difficult to achieve both COVID-19 treatment and regular medical treatment. I recognize this as a situation where the point at which we can depend on individual endeavors (to curb transmission) has passed.”

Finally Suga relented, backpedaling further the same day with a request that travel from Sapporo and Osaka, in addition to travel to the cities, also be put on hold under the program.

The partial retreat, however, does not necessarily mean Suga has acquiesced to a broader shift in direction.

At the Lower House Budget Committee meeting on Nov. 25, he had stood firm against an onslaught of criticism from Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, who demanded the Go To project to be temporarily halted altogether.

Suga defended the initiative in which he seems heavily invested, insisting that the government follows recommendations from the subcommittee about the program’s operation.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (right) and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government's virus response, at the Prime Minister's Office on Nov. 24 | KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (right) and Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government’s virus response, at the Prime Minister’s Office on Nov. 24 | KYODO

When the leader of the largest opposition party pointed out that Go To programs are not the only way to help the tourism industry, Suga snapped back. “I’ve made a decision that the Go To Travel program is highly effective for supporting regional economies,” the prime minister said in an irritated tone. “As I wrestle with challenges, the Go To Travel program is achieving a tremendous measure of success in supporting local economies.”

For Suga, a resilient economic comeback is crucial beyond his personal interest. He needs it as his primary campaign pitch to win the upcoming Lower House election, which must be held before October next year. The recent resurgence in cases appears to have thwarted prospects for a snap election in January, ahead of the beginning of the ordinary Diet session.

And since the postponed Olympics and Paralympics are expected to take place in the summer, Suga is seeking to suppress the virus by then. A cancellation would be a nightmare for him and a significant blow to the economy.

Meanwhile, the public is divided on the government’s responses to the once-in-a-generation global health crisis. The latest poll by the Nikkei daily, taken this past weekend, showed 48% of respondents did not approve of the government’s handling of COVID-19 — a 13 point jump from October — while 44% supported it.

At the same time, the public also supports the government’s approach to address the public health risks in a way that is compatible with maintaining the economy. According to the Nikkei poll, 57% of respondents said the government should strive toward its goal of balancing both infection prevention and economic activities, well ahead of the 34% who said the government should prioritize the former and 8% who chose the latter as the government’s priority.

Asked whether the government sees rising cases and limited suspension of the Go To programs as throwing that balance off, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato did not provide a straightforward answer but said the government wants to avoid implementing harsh measures that “put restrictions on people’s activities.”

“If the infection spreads, that’ll endanger lives. If socioeconomic activities slow down, that’ll negatively affect livelihoods,” Kato said during a regular news conference on Nov. 25.

Takenaka, the professor, said the subcommittee has not necessarily presented new proposals, beyond contact-tracing from clusters and epidemiological surveys at public health centers, that can convince the administration to take bolder action — such as massive, random testing in specific regions with high infection rates. He questions whether the government can really contain the spread of COVID-19 with its current broad and shallow, economy-first approach, such as with requests to shorten business hours.

If Suga feels it is necessary to continue the Go To campaigns, balancing economic recovery with containment, he has to examine more effective options to reduce the spread of infection, the professor says. Specifically, that would mean bringing down the R-value — the numerical figure showing how many people each infected person will, on average, infect — to below 1.

“While the prime minister can think about policy options on his own, he cannot come up with all the ideas,” Takenaka says. “The people around him should (also) present them.”

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