Japan’s vaccine rollout has been a skin-of-the-teeth endeavor, with authorities making pronouncements before finalizing any plans. Blame for the resulting confusion has mostly fallen on local governments, which have been tasked with carrying out the actual vaccinations.
The media has thus developed a sub-narrative about localities allowing certain parties to cut the line for injections, the most infamous case being that of the 70-year-old chairman of pharmacy chain Sugi Holdings Co., who, along with his wife, was prioritized for vaccinations ahead of other elderly people in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture — though once the media found out about it the couple was forced to stand in line like everybody else. In a May 15 article, Tokyo Shimbun referred to the incident as an example of privileging jōkyū kokumin, or a “higher grade of citizen,” in public matters.
Elsewhere in the same issue, the newspaper provided a survey of stories about municipal politicians and civil servants who moved up the ladder for shots. In almost all the incidents cited, the people who benefited were using doses from canceled reservations or vaccines left over from the supply designated for essential health workers, who were supposed to receive their shots first.
Many times, the lucky recipients claimed that, as keepers of the public trust, they themselves counted as essential personnel, the idea being that all healthy hands were needed on deck in order to ensure that proper pandemic countermeasures were being carried out, including the implementation of the vaccination program. Others effectively deputized themselves as honorary health workers, thus obviating the need to offer excuses. But in almost all these instances, excuses didn’t matter because the choice was determined by a simple truth: doses that went unadministered for any reason would be wasted, so they were given to the nearest available person, meaning someone doing the administering, even if it was only bureaucratically.
As Tokyo Shimbun pointed out, this explanation didn’t stop the media and the public from expressing outrage, but local governments seriously have to address the matter of what to do with potentially wasted vaccines. The mayor of a city in Nagasaki Prefecture told the newspaper that although he himself is a certified nurse he would not accept a vaccination until it was his turn according to his city’s plan, which is to use leftover vaccines to immunize staff at old age homes, regardless of their age. The 35-year-old mayor of Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture, has earned plaudits for administering leftover doses to the city’s public school teachers, who he obviously believes are essential workers.
The health ministry says it is up to the individual local government as to what to do with unadministered doses, but the ministry’s suggestion that they make a standby system for people with reservations sounds unrealistic in terms of execution when somebody cancels or doesn’t show up. In a sense, the ministry’s idea highlights how unprepared the central government has been for the vaccine rollout and how much responsibility they are foisting onto local governments.
This dynamic was addressed by Nobuto Hosaka, the head of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, on the web channel Democracy Times. Hosaka was asked if his municipality could vaccinate all of its older residents by the end of July in line with the government’s sudden announcement. He said that in order to achieve that goal, they would have to either increase the number of vaccination locations or cut the amount of time it takes to give an injection.
Like all local governments, Setagaya has had to play it by ear. The main problem, said Hosaka, was that his office didn’t have time to prepare a plan, since the government didn’t provide them with a vaccine delivery schedule. They didn’t know how many doses they would receive until the end of April, and by the time they started actual vaccinations on May 3 they had two possible time frames depending on exigencies: One that completed vaccinations for older residents by the end of July and one that completed them by the end of August.
When non-fiction writer Junichiro Yamaoka, an interviewer for the Democracy Times, asked Hosaka if he thought the government’s July deadline was set for political reasons — there will be a general election in October and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is compelling local constituencies to meet the deadline — his guest answered that when he talked to representatives of four government ministries dispatched to push the deadline, he asked them what the plan was after older people were vaccinated. They had no answer.
Hosaka says it is unfair to criticize local governments for vaccinating staff early with unadministered doses, since these localities are addressing their circumstances without sufficient information and support. In the beginning, every municipality in Japan, regardless of size, was given the exact same number of doses (one small island in Shiga Prefecture has already completely vaccinated 90.7% of its population over 16).
How can a local government fulfill a schedule with this kind of haphazard management? Though Setagaya has been able to adjust to the changes in the rollout, which has accelerated in the last few weeks, they still have to deal with unforeseen matters like redundant reservations caused by the government’s hasty creation of a mass vaccination center for Tokyo.
That hastiness proved to be a problem. On the day the center started taking reservations online, Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and others reported that there were no protocols to prevent just anyone from making a reservation. The government was furious, not because the contractor hired to set up the website had failed, but because the media had pointed out the flaw before it was fixed, thus presumably enticing bad actors to fill vaccination slots that should have gone to seniors. The anger was born of frustration. The government wanted credit for creating an emergency facility, oblivious to the notion that the only reason they had to provide it in such a hurry was because they didn’t do a proper job in the first place.
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