A year after the government declared its first state of emergency due to the coronavirus, Japan still finds itself in a precarious situation as cases rise and the nation fears for another wave of COVID-19.
A fourth wave looks imminent as cases involving variants continue to spread amid a decrease in the effectiveness of countermeasures, as the public has grown weary of protracted restrictions.
Many infectious disease experts and government officials say that the state of infections would have differed greatly had the government not decided to fully lift its first state of emergency on May 25 last year.
Although the decision was based on a decrease in new cases, experts at the time were calling for an extension of the state of emergency to mid-June.
Analysis showed that a state of emergency lasting for three additional weeks could have reduced the spread of the virus that is believed to have been reintroduced to the country from Europe around that time.
But the decision to lift the state of emergency gave a boost to the economy, which had been hit hard by requests for businesses across many sectors to suspend operations.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe felt that it was necessary to support the economy as quickly as possible and adopted programs such as Go To Travel for tourism promotion. His successor, Yoshihide Suga, took a similar view.
Last summer, a second wave of coronavirus infections occurred, followed by a third wave that began around the end of the year.
Both were far larger than the first wave and a second state of emergency was declared earlier this year for specific prefectures.
On Jan. 8 this year, new cases nationwide hit a record daily high of 7,844, against a peak of 708 logged on April 10 last year during the first wave, according to health ministry data.
“If (the first state of emergency) had been extended by three weeks, the epidemic would have been controlled a bit more,” a government official said. The official, however, defended the decision to lift the measure by citing the dismal state of the economy.
The government has since revised the special measures law covering infectious disease epidemics so that stronger measures similar to those taken under a state of emergency can be adopted without an emergency declaration.
The tougher measures were implemented for the first time in some cities in the prefectures of Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi starting Monday.
Some progress has been made on the vaccine front, with vaccinations of older citizens set to begin next Monday after the campaign started in February with inoculations for health care workers.
However, there are problems in the fight against the virus that did not exist a year ago.
One is the rise of more infectious variants, which appear to be a significant factor behind the spread of cases in Osaka and Hyogo.
A member of a government expert group on the coronavirus said that the situation has changed, voicing concerns about an explosive wave of the virus unlike anything seen before if variants begin to spread in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
“We need to respond with a strong sense of caution,” Suga told the Audit Committee of the House of Councilors on Monday.
Another concern is citizens’ fatigue amid the prolonged health crisis.
The second state of emergency, declared in January, was less effective in reducing commuter numbers and foot traffic in shopping districts than the first one last year. After the second state of emergency was fully lifted late last month, many people in Tokyo flocked to parks to view cherry blossoms.
Health ministry officials were also found to have had a dinner party late into the night.
It is clear that requests to avoid unnecessary travel are starting to fall on deaf ears.
“With an increase in the movement of people at all hours of the day and with the issue of variant strains, we are facing a harsher situation than before,” Shigeru Omi, who chairs a government advisory panel on the epidemic, told a Diet session Tuesday.
“The country must work as one to avoid an onslaught” of infections until vaccinations for elderly citizens make substantial progress, he added.
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