Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was forced to declare a third virus state of emergency Friday — despite concerns about the economic damage it could trigger — highlighting a miscalculation in his pandemic strategy that could haunt him.
After the second state of emergency was lifted on March 22, Suga gambled on the belief that the pandemic could be overcome through quasi-emergency measures and vaccinations.
In the quasi-emergency stage, prefectural governors are granted stronger powers, such as requesting or ordering businesses to shorten their opening hours. According to an aide to the prime minister, the administration viewed these measures as a “de facto declaration of a state of emergency.”
But the measures, taken in Osaka Prefecture and a handful of other areas where new infections were raging, failed to produce tangible results. In Osaka, the daily number of new infections continues to hover around its record high of more than 1,000.
The failure has been attributed to the spread of more virulent coronavirus variants.
Just two weeks after the quasi-emergency measures began in Osaka on April 5, the prefectural government asked the central government to declare a state of emergency in the prefecture. This was followed by requests from neighboring Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures, as well as Tokyo.
The move shook the central government, which was completely unprepared to declare a new state of emergency.
“We have decided nothing yet,” a government source said Wednesday night after the four prefectures had made their requests.
Asked by reporters a day later whether there were any flaws in the quasi-emergency measures, Suga demurred.
“We haven’t made a review yet,” he said.
His administration was also divided over the duration of the new state of emergency.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and health minister Norihisa Tamura proposed three weeks, based on the view that it would take around two weeks for a state of emergency to begin showing effects.
But Suga pushed for two weeks, aiming to minimize any adverse impact on economic activity. One of his aides quoted the prime minister as saying that he wanted to make it “as short as possible.”
Eventually, the two sides reached a compromise of 17 days.
Suga favored a shorter emergency period apparently because he wanted to prevent the state of emergency from affecting the Tokyo Olympics, due to start on July 23.
For the prime minister, holding a successful Tokyo Games remains a key task left by his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. A successful event would also provide a tailwind for his administration, according to a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
However, it remains to be seen whether the government can lift the state of emergency on May 11 as planned, given that vaccinations are expected to start in earnest only after the Golden Week holiday period that runs through early May. The rapid spread of variants in Tokyo could also put a damper on any plans for an early exit from the emergency.
The previous state of emergency was extended twice after being issued in January.
“We are not assuming an extension,” a senior government official said.
But one expert who attended the government’s pandemic response meeting Friday said it would be “impossible” to lift the emergency unless the coronavirus situation improves to at least Stage 3, the second worst on the country’s scale.
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