With the coronavirus spreading to a degree and in a manner never before seen in Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday that the state of emergency will be expanded to Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba and Osaka prefectures, effective Monday.

The country’s fourth state of emergency — which is currently active in Tokyo and Okinawa prefectures until Aug. 22 — will be extended to Aug. 31. Quasi-emergency measures will take effect Monday in Hokkaido, Ishikawa, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures and last until the end of August.

With the latest measures, the Suga administration, well aware of the public’s virus fatigue, essentially wants to buy time to vaccinate as many people as possible to push new cases downwards. As of Thursday, 27.6% of the population had been fully vaccinated.

“I really, really want this to be the last state of emergency we’re going to impose,” one senior administration official said Thursday night.

Time is working against Japan, with public fatigue, the delta variant and sustained foot traffic in major cities casting doubt upon the central government’s desperate attempts to stifle the rapidly spreading virus.

“Infections are increasing and spreading faster than ever before in many areas,” Suga said Friday during a news conference. “I made a decision to expand locations and extend the duration of the state of emergency to ensure medical resources will not be overwhelmed as countermeasures are implemented and more vaccines are administered.”

He pledged to ensure that more than 60% of people receive their first dose of a vaccine by the end of August, and that over 40% complete their second dose.

Suga urged people to avoid nonessential outings and exercise caution when visiting their hometowns during the summer Bon holiday.

“I am repeating my request to everyone — and it pains me to do so — but I urge people to stay vigilant for a little longer until vaccines will further demonstrate their effectiveness.”

People at the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on Thursday | REUTERS
People at the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on Thursday

Leading up to Friday, the prime minister’s perceived reluctance to convey a sense of urgency about the situation had raised doubts about his crisis communication abilities. When daily cases in Tokyo broke a record with more than 2,800 on Wednesday, Suga refused to take questions from the media.

“The prime minister refusing to take questions didn’t really give a good impression,” one ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker said Thursday.

The discrepancy between rising new cases and hospitalizations and Suga’s move to highlight positive news has raised suspicions that he is trying to downplay the severity of the situation.

When asked by reporters about the increase in new cases Thursday, Suga stressed that people age 65 or older — the group most vulnerable to the virus, who were prioritized for shots — only accounted for 3% of new cases, emphasizing the vaccine’s efficacy.

“There are various ways of looking at things, but it’s a fact that vaccines have lowered (the share of new cases involving older people),” Suga said in response to a question on whether he shares a sense of crisis politically. “It’s our job to present those findings.”

Japan has already endured three states of emergency and four waves of the pandemic, but experts advising the central government fear that broadening the country’s fourth state of emergency to fight back the fifth wave will have a limited impact.

The country is reporting fewer deaths and older patients experiencing serious symptoms, but it’s experiencing an uptick in younger patients who require intensive care. Experts are concerned that, as past precedent would dictate, the rise in infections among young people will be followed by a delayed surge in severely ill patients.

“I feel a great sense of danger,” Shigeru Omi, chair of the government’s coronavirus subcommittee, said Thursday. “There is barely any prospect that we can curtail this outbreak.”

The declaration of a state of emergency imbues prefectural governors with a range of powers, including the ability to ask residents to stay indoors and avoid travel, and to compel local businesses to temporarily reduce or suspend operations.

But time and economic losses have gradually chipped away at the effectiveness of the country’s efforts to contain the virus.

Nationwide cases breached 10,000 cases for the first time on Thursday after officials reported a record-breaking number of new cases in Tokyo, as well as high counts in Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama.

On Friday, Tokyo reported 3,300 cases, while record highs of 753 and 1,418 were logged in Chiba and Kanagawa, respectively. Saitama saw 853 cases, and 882 were reported in Osaka.

Foot traffic has declined in Tokyo since a fourth state of emergency was declared in the capital earlier this month, but not as much as it did during the city’s third state of emergency in May.

The capital’s entertainment districts saw evening foot traffic decline by more than 40% during the state of emergency in May, but only by 18% in the two weeks after the state of emergency was reinstated on July 12.

Osaka's Umeda district on Thursday afternoon. Osaka Prefecture will be under a state of emergency from Monday. | KYODO
Osaka’s Umeda district on Thursday afternoon. Osaka Prefecture will be under a state of emergency from Monday. | KYODO

In the rest of the country, new infections are surpassing levels unseen since January during Japan’s third wave. The delta variant — which is thought to be deadlier and nearly twice as contagious as the original strain of the coronavirus — is spreading rapidly.

Infectious disease experts advising the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said Thursday that the capital’s health care system is already showing signs of strain.

Those experts projected that, if new cases continue to emerge at this pace, in two weeks the capital could see more than 4,500 cases a day.

“I’ve said this before but I’ll repeat it again: Until the population is sufficiently vaccinated, we’re fighting the virus bare-handed,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said during a news conference Friday. “We’ve asked residents to isolate themselves countless times, but our goal, as a country, should be to make this the last.”

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