The Tokyo region is halfway through its second state of emergency, with officials set to examine the effectiveness of the measure in the coming week.
Experts will look to determine if the country can quickly return to normal like it did following a similar emergency last spring, or risk being dragged into a lengthy and punishing battle against the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared the emergency for Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures on Jan. 7, which included requests for residents to avoid going out after 8 p.m. and for bars and restaurants to close at that time, to address an alarming surge in cases. While the areas under the emergency, set to run until Feb. 7, were already extended to include more prefectures including Osaka and Aichi, there are chances it may be extended further and the areas under its purview broadened yet again.
While declaring the emergency earlier this month, Suga indicated it would take two weeks for the effects to show up in daily infection numbers. On Friday, which marked that point, Tokyo reported 1,175 virus cases, indicating that the explosive growth of new infections appears to have at least blunted. That also brought, for the first time, the seven-day case average below the level seen on the day the emergency was declared.
However, Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University and a leading member of a panel advising the government, says Japan’s experts will look at the level before Christmas as a benchmark to determine the impact of the measures taken.
“I’m not sure if we’ll still see some increasing trend or stability or a decreasing trend in the number,” he said. “We need to wait until mid-next week to see the trend.”
Public health experts had already cast doubt on whether a monthlong measure would be enough — especially given that the first emergency, which called for broader restrictions and was imposed when daily cases were at a much lower level, went on for six weeks.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister leading the government’s response, is among the officials who have bemoaned the fact that the second state of emergency hasn’t had the same impact as the first on people’s movement. The number of prefectures under the state of emergency could be expanded further, depending on infections, he said on Jan. 14.
Streets that were deserted during the April emergency are still seeing crowds, with department stores, bars and restaurants staying open for most of the day. The second emergency has led to a decline in foot traffic, particularly after 8 p.m., but the drop is less than that seen in the first emergency.
While officials are also encouraging remote work, the impact remains well off the goal. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Friday that 57.1% of companies had implemented a remote work policy, citing the results of a survey, up from 51.4% in December.
An additional worry this time is the growing number of people requiring hospitalization. With daily cases in the thousands, hospitals that are treating coronavirus patients are increasingly stretched, with available beds and the state of the medical system among factors the government will examine when determining whether to lift the emergency. Serious cases have tripled since mid-November to top 1,000 for the first time.
Adding to that concern is the fact that since the start of 2021, the proportion of those aged 65 or above — most at risk of death from COVID-19 — has begun to grow.
That’s contributing to a rising death toll. Japan has so far escaped the worst of the pandemic — to such an extent that overall deaths fell in 2020 for the first time in a decade — but as winter has set in, the numbers have been consistently growing, nearing 100 in recent days.
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