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Toasty weather and blooming cherry blossoms are just a couple of the many forgotten pleasures that may entice people to let their guard down once the state of emergency is lifted in the greater Tokyo area and the country tries to reopen society without triggering a resurgence of COVID-19.

The diminishing impact of noncompulsory countermeasures on a population fatigued by long stretches of isolation and major lifestyle adjustments has long been a major concern.

If the virus rebounds due to an uptick in social gatherings, however, poor risk communication and belated countermeasures from political leaders — not public indifference or a brazen attitude toward the health of others — should bear most of the blame, said Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science.

“If people feel that, no matter what they do, the situation will not improve to the point where it meets all the benchmarks that the government has set, either implicitly or explicitly, to return life to normal or at least to get rid of the state of emergency, then they're going to relax in a way that may lead to yet another uptick in cases,” McElwain said.

Some aspects of life under the state of emergency set to be lifted Monday may fade away, he went on, but others — hand sanitizers, masks, temperature checks and acrylic dividers placed at the entrances and interiors of myriad restaurants, cafes, train stations and public facilities — will most likely remain for the time being.

Throughout the pandemic, regional and national political leaders have been criticized for their reactionary, belated or even nonexistent countermeasures in response to new outbreaks of COVID-19.

The ebb and flow of the situation has taken its toll on the mental, physical and emotional well-being of the people.

People take photos of a cherry blossom tree near Tokyo Skytree on March 6. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
People take photos of a cherry blossom tree near Tokyo Skytree on March 6. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Meanwhile, the emergency declaration’s effectiveness seems to have reached its limit as the number of new cases in the capital region stubbornly refuses to decline.

Since Suga extended the emergency, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has repeatedly said the rolling weekly average of new cases in the capital needs to fall below 170 for the it to be lifted safely.

That average figure nearly reached 300 on Wednesday, the same day the city reported a monthly high of 409 additional cases. In the other prefectures still under the state of emergency, 96 cases were logged in Saitama Prefecture, 91 cases in Kanagawa Prefecture and 76 in Chiba Prefecture. Tokyo reported 323 new cases Thursday.

The nation's virus countermeasures have been largely voluntary and thus rely heavily on people and businesses to comply willingly in the absence of monetary fines or the threat of criminal prosecution.

In February, revisions to the country’s virus laws made it possible for prefectural governors to issue administrative fines to businesses that refuse to comply with closure requests issued during a state of emergency. But given the short time frame since the law was revised and the time-consuming nature of handing down fines, it's unclear whether the legal measures had a significant impact on business closures.

When the central government declared its first state of emergency in early April last year, governors throughout the country issued closure requests to an expansive list of businesses and public and private facilities, including public universities and schools, athletic facilities, live music venues, concert halls, community centers, bars, night clubs and internet cafes.

Though it was followed by another wave of COVID-19 weeks later, the first state of emergency is thought to have, at the very least, been effective in convincing many people to stay indoors and in encouraging a significant number of businesses to temporarily halt operations.

Restaurants near Miyashita Park in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Monday | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Restaurants near Miyashita Park in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward on Monday | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

But the scope of the second emergency was smaller, and so was its impact in convincing residents to stay home.

Not only that, when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency on Jan. 7, he did so only for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures. Days later the order was expanded to include Osaka, Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures, among others. Large areas of the country never fell under the latest state of emergency.

During the second declaration, several governors targeted the food industry by asking restaurants and other dining establishments to close by 8 p.m.

Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government laid out a three-stage road map to gradually and incrementally reopen the city, but this time the capital has announced it will ask eateries to close by 9 p.m. after the emergency ends, through the end of March.

According to figures published Wednesday by the health ministry, public foot traffic dropped nearly 50% in Ikebukuro, Kabukicho, Shibuya, Ginza, Ueno, Roppongi and other major districts in Tokyo between early January and late February. Beginning in late February and continuing into mid-March, however, those figures began to climb.

Up until now, public foot traffic has largely correlated with the rise and fall of new cases of COVID-19. But recently traffic has been growing as new cases plateau.

The effectiveness of the country’s second state of emergency is beginning to wane, McElwain said, but stronger measures may still be effective if and when a resurgence — or even a fourth wave — of COVID-19 emerges.

The vaccination process in Japan began in February, but the rollout schedule has since been pushed back more than once and the overall timetable appears dubious. The inoculation of older people is slated to begin in April, but it's difficult to predict how soon enough of the general population will receive their shots to stymie the spreading pathogen.

Meanwhile, the number of infections of coronavirus variants remain small but continue to grow. As of Tuesday, the health ministry had recorded nearly 400 cases involving variants.

As the country exits the state of emergency, whether all the variants of COVID-19 can be contained may depend on the ability of public officials to put forward stricter, more comprehensive restrictions on society, and the willingness of the masses to comply.

“Intense pain over a short period of time is ultimately easier to deal with than dull pain that goes on for a longer period of time,” McElwain said. “A more intense but surgical state of emergency would be tolerated especially if each component is explained clearly, but the status quo is no longer sustainable.”

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