Some experts are calling on the government to exercise caution in considering a law revision to impose punishments against refusals of authorities' requests for cooperation in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
In order to give teeth to its efforts to curb an increase of infection cases, the government is looking at punishments for businesses that refuse to meet requests for suspending or shortening operations and infected people who refuse hospitalization advice. Many people consider the measure to be inevitable in view of the unabated spread of the virus.
But some experts stress the need for the government to show reasonable grounds for penalties that would limit citizens' rights, without being carried away with the prevailing mood.
Currently, local governments' requests for cooperation are nonbinding and the disclosure of the names of noncompliant businesses is the main step authorities can take in response to refusals.
Flagrant violations of pandemic-related rules are dealt with by police. Arrests have been made in alleged fraudulent receipts of coronavirus relief benefits and of people suspected of using public bath facilities by concealing infections with the virus.
Business groups and the National Governors' Association call for a legal basis for imposing punishment. But the Japanese Medical Science Federation has issued a statement in opposition to statutory penalties, saying that it would become difficult to obtain cooperation from citizens and that some people may avoid taking tests for the virus for fear of being penalized.
Lawyer Masaru Wakasa, a former head of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office's public security department, expressed understanding for a legal revision. "It is difficult under the current law to crack down on negative behavior including refusing to be admitted to hospital," he said.
But Wakasa cautions against hasty discussions. "Stipulating punishment in a law requires sufficient reason and necessity. Arguments showing why it is impossible to prevent infections without penalties and experts' views (backing penalties) are needed, and a decision cannot be made with political judgment alone," he said.
Masahiro Takasaku, a professor at Kansai University, is worried that people can be easily moved to excessive responses in times of growing anxiety.
Noting that the freedom of economic activity and citizens' action is guaranteed under the Constitution, Takasaku said, "The fundamental principle is that limiting rights should be kept to a bare minimum when absolutely essential."
If the government forces its way through, citing a state of emergency as the reason, not only legislating punishment but also the application of the law could be in violation of the Constitution, he warned.
"If the state takes strong action, it would undergo rigorous review by society," Takasaku added. "I'm worried that, although the virus is to blame, harassment against businesses, such as coronavirus vigilantism, and a mood for justifying discrimination against infected people may be encouraged."
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