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In an attempt to stifle a burgeoning fourth wave of the coronavirus, the central government announced Friday that countermeasures imposed in parts of the country earlier this month will be expanded to Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Aichi prefectures.

Effective Tuesday until May 11, restaurants and other dining establishments have been asked to close by 8 p.m. — and residents urged to stay indoors and avoid travel — in the cities of Yokohama, Kawasaki and Sagamihara in Kanagawa; Funabashi, Ichikawa, Matsudo, Kashiwa and Urayasu in Chiba; Saitama and Kawaguchi in Saitama; and Nagoya.

“Measures restricted in both time and location are necessary to stop the increasing spread of the virus,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said on behalf of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is currently on a diplomatic trip to the United States, during a government coronavirus taskforce meeting Friday. “Moving forward, regional surges need to be contained in order to prevent a nationwide wave.”

As a fourth wave fueled by elusive, deadlier variants of the coronavirus picks up speed in Japan, countermeasures meant to target localized outbreaks and prevent a state of emergency have quickly expanded to the country’s most populated areas.

Japan reported more than 4,500 new cases Thursday, the country’s highest daily figure since Jan. 23.

New cases have been emerging at an increasing rate for several weeks now in Kanagawa and Aichi, but plateauing in Chiba and Saitama, where officials fear a rise in infections is imminent.

Kanagawa reported 209 cases Friday, the second highest daily count since the country’s second state of emergency was lifted in the prefecture — along with three others — on March 22.

Aichi reported 224 cases Friday, the highest since late January. Osaka saw a record-breaking 1,209 cases, while Tokyo saw 667.

The same day, Saitama reported 163 new cases, while Chiba logged 155.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of coronavirus response, speaks during a meeting of the government's virus subcommittee in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of coronavirus response, speaks during a meeting of the government’s virus subcommittee in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

The capital led the country in new cases through all of the country’s three previous waves, but this time Osaka has surpassed the capital by a large margin.

It is possible that Osaka’s unfortunate ascendancy illustrates the new and unpredictable nature of the fourth wave, or it could mean the capital is bound for a proportional surge in new cases, as the state of emergency was lifted in Tokyo three weeks later than in Osaka.

New measures were employed for the first time in Osaka, Miyagi and Hyogo prefectures earlier this month and will last until May 5.

Just over a week later, they were activated in Kyoto and Okinawa prefectures, where they will last until May 5, and in Tokyo until May 11.

Once they take effect in Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Aichi on Tuesday, new countermeasures will be active in 10 prefectures.

These new but less restrictive countermeasures — often referred to as manbō, the shortened version of their official name — were made possible by revisions to the country’s virus laws in February.

Once the central government accepts a formal request to designate a municipality under the revised laws, the respective governor can enforce new countermeasures that include urging residents to stay indoors and avoid travel, and calling on restaurants and other local businesses to close early at the risk of incurring a monetary fine if they fail to comply.

Experts have begun urging the government to consider declaring a third state of emergency.

“The declaration needs to be made before it’s too late,” said Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa during a news conference Wednesday.

Regarding any declaration, health minister Norihisa Tamura said Friday that “experts will be consulted before the Cabinet makes any final decisions.”

“A state of emergency should be considered if necessary steps can’t be taken under the new countermeasures,” said Shigeru Omi, president of the Japan Community Health Organization and chair of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee.

On Thursday, new cases surpassed 1,000 cases for the third straight day in Osaka, where all hospital beds reserved for severely ill COVID-19 patients are currently occupied, meaning those kept available for patients without COVID-19 are being reallocated.

Nakagawa warned that Tokyo could be headed for a similar situation.

As new cases arise throughout the country, so too does the number of infections involving variants that are highly contagious, more deadly and difficult to detect.

These mutated forms of COVID-19 are inflaming the ongoing outbreak, and officials fear the country’s fourth, current wave could surpass its third to reach unprecedented heights.

People watch the Tokyo Olympic torch relay in Nagoya on April 5. | KYODO
People watch the Tokyo Olympic torch relay in Nagoya on April 5. | KYODO

The reproduction rate — an epidemiological measurement that predicts the average number of people infected by one individual — of the N501Y variant is thought to be 1.32 times higher in Japan than that of the original strain of the coronavirus, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID).

That variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, began to spread rapidly in Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in February. By March, it accounted for more than half of all screened coronavirus cases and 75% by early April.

The variant has been detected in about 10% of screened cases in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area — which consists of the capital, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama — but that figure could reach 90% by early May, according to NIID projections.

Variants make up a growing portion of new cases in Aichi, Mie, Shizuoka and Gifu prefectures as well.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister leading the country’s coronavirus response, said Friday that new measures could be imposed in Nara and Fukuoka prefectures if the rise in new cases can’t be contained quickly.

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