Empathy and consideration are key to success in the fight against the novel coronavirus under current restrictions amid receding fear of the virus, experts say.
Eleven of Japan’s 47 prefectures have been placed under a state of emergency Friday through Feb. 7.
But the public, already used to the unrelenting spread of infections and tired of life under self-imposed restrictions, seem less scared of the virus than during the previous COVID-19 state of emergency between April and May last year.
“Fear drove people to exercise self-control during the previous state of emergency. We can’t expect them to do the same this time,” said University of Tokyo economics professor Tsutomu Watanabe, who has analyzed people’s movements during the pandemic from smartphone location information.
Watanabe said his analysis shows that the main reason people refrained from leaving home the previous time was not the emergency declaration itself but fear of the unknown virus.
Since then, the correlation between the number of infection cases and the number of people outside has grown weaker, a result believed to reflect diminished fear of the virus, he said.
“It is rational for young people with a lower risk of developing serious symptoms not to exercise voluntary restrictions,” Watanabe said. “Criticizing them or inciting fear will only trigger opposition.”
Key to enhancing the effectiveness of measures taken under the state of emergency will be altruism, which, like fear, leads to behavioral alterations, according to Watanabe.
“The important thing in riding out the current third infection wave is how to appeal to a sense of consideration, leading people to try not to infect others,” Watanabe said.
Doshisha University professor Kazuya Nakayachi, who studied psychological factors related to wearing face masks, warned that an increasing number of people seem to favor opinions that justify dining in large groups over calls for self-restraint.
“In order to suppress the infections, it is crucial to get the public to see the coronavirus crisis as their own affair,” he said.
“People don’t feel threatened just by numbers,” Nakayachi said, adding that the government can get its message across if the public sees the situation as an issue associated with someone close to them and if it explains more in detail what should be done.
As a successful example, Nakayachi pointed to a speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She told Germans that the pandemic was about lives, not just a string of numbers, and implored them to act so that it would not be their last Christmas holidays with their grandparents.
“Empathy is crucial in a moving speech,” speechwriter Shigenori Sasaki stressed.
“Restaurant and health care workers, who are nearly at breaking point, and younger people wanting to have fun, are all facing tough times,” Sasaki said.
“People will feel motivated to cooperate if the (government) shows understanding for them all and makes sincere requests, as well as explaining (coronavirus-related) numbers and the background,” he added.
However, many people in Tokyo and nearby prefectures, the first areas to be placed back under the state of emergency earlier in the month, gave a cool response to the government’s move.
“My life won’t change,” said a 17-year-old high school student, who was talking with her friends near the statue of the faithful Akita dog Hachiko, a landmark in front of Tokyo’s Shibuya Station. “My school won’t be closed, and stores will be open during the day.”
A 24-year-old health care worker complained that businesses other than restaurants will not be provided with financial support, even though they have also been affected by the pandemic.
“I don’t think many people will follow (requests) despite the emergency declaration,” he said. The worker said he has been busy at work amid spikes in coronavirus infections.
The government’s action was “too late,” lens-maker employee Keita Sato, 34, said at Omiya Station, a busy railway station in the city of Saitama.
Sato blasted government measures under the state of emergency as “half-baked,” referring to early closure requests only to some businesses, including restaurants.
“I can’t see any sense of urgency,” he added.
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