As China appears to be getting a grip on the COVID-19 outbreak, there is mounting concern that Japan is now a hot spot, with health experts warning it could be a key indicator of whether this is going to be a global pandemic.
Neither the Japanese government nor the public should overreact to the outbreak since, as it has been warned in these pages, fear will only magnify a problem. More than anything else, the government must project competence and seriousness, ensuring public trust in and compliance with its policies. To date, that record is mixed and that is especially troubling given the potential consequences of this outbreak.
The coronavirus has infected over 77,000 people and claimed some 2,600 lives in China, along with thousands more infections worldwide. In Japan, more than 800 cases have been identified, with five deaths. A surge in infections here has convinced many observers that the Tokyo’s response has been a failure. The rising number of canceled visits to Japan by tourists and business professionals and the readiness of countries to close their doors to visitors from Japan are proof of growing international concern about Japanese policy.
One reason for the policy failure is that, three months into the outbreak, much remains uncertain about the disease; most significantly, it is not clear how the virus is transmitted. The most recent information indicates that it can spread before the onset of symptoms; this makes early identification of infection critical. This reassessment would explain why COVID-19 is more contagious than seasonal flu or viruses like SARS or MERS; authorities have been late to grasp when isolation or quarantine is required.
The initial vectors of the disease in Japan could be traced and health officials did a good job of identifying how infections occurred. More recent cases, however, defy the original explanations and experts are struggling to understand what happened.
The lack of an apparent connection to China among new cases is confounding, but Japanese officials and experts are not alone in this failure: analysis by the leading international group modeling the disease estimated last week that “about two thirds of COVID-19 cases exported from mainland China have remained undetected worldwide, potentially resulting in multiple chains of as yet undetected human-to-human transmission outside China.” The group estimates that there are already more than 3,000 cases around the world, and another expert has concluded that it is likely to continue to spread and “will be the fifth commonly circulating human coronavirus infection.”
Japan is also being faulted for responding too slowly, with complaints focusing on delays in closing borders and testing visitors. Japan began using monitors to check temperatures of passengers flying in from China on Jan. 23 and didn’t deny entry to people from Hubei province until Feb. 1, a day after the United States barred travelers from China.
Sluggishness is both expected and surprising. Expected, because Japan has a history of poor crisis response and management. The two most prominent examples are the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear meltdowns. In both cases, the national government relied on routine procedures in exceptional circumstances. Surprising, because Japan has a history of poor crisis response and management. After two extraordinary failures, the government should have been prepared for another crisis. It is not yet clear if the slow response reflects a failure of imagination — the inability to anticipate and prepare for this kind of contingency — or a lack of urgency.
What explains these priorities? Perspective, for one thing. COVID-19 is worrying but experts note that the flu kills far more people every year: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reckons that in the U.S. alone the flu has caused an estimated 26 million illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths this season. COVID-19 may be more lethal — statistics are evolving — but Japanese officials were right to try to use evidence to assess the problem rather than relying on fear or prejudice.
An inclination to put things in perspective assumed additional force as the government weighed other concerns. The first is economic. Chinese tourists are vital to the domestic economy, accounting for over 30 percent of the total number of foreign visitors and they make up 38.6 percent of total tourist spending. There was no inclination to slow or cut off the flow of those tourists as a massive influx was coming for the Chinese New Year, especially when the Japanese economy was struggling.
A second factor is diplomatic: the long-sought trip to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping. No Chinese leader has made a state visit to Japan since 2008. Xi is expected in April and that meeting has assumed great importance for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A good relationship with Beijing is vital not only to Japan but to the entire region (if not the world), so giving the success of that visit great weight in Japanese calculations is hard to fault. It should not overshadow all other considerations, however, a view with which the Japanese public would seem to agree.
As the crisis has worsened, public support for Abe’s government has dropped several percentage points and a majority say they are dissatisfied with how his administration has handled the situation. But an effective response to a public health crisis is public confidence in government. Even if an administration gets it right, lack of trust will undermine the efficacy of its policy. One of the biggest problems China faces is great skepticism about official pronouncements. The use of force is necessary there because the government has little or no credibility and people have no reason to voluntarily comply with edicts.
Japan does not have that problem — a preference for order is deeply ingrained — but trust in government is limited. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, an authoritative annual survey of trust in institutions, found that 43 percent of Japanese trust their government, an increase of 4 percentage points over the past year. This outbreak could reverse that trend — trust in government has climbed 17 percentage points since 2007, reports the OECD — which poses an increasingly real threat to the Abe government.
However reasonable the government’s instinct to go slow and use facts to guide policy, the handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship shredded any image of competency.
Reports from the ship have been confusing and contradictory, but one thing is certain: The ship has been a giant incubator, infecting health workers and government officials who dealt with the situation, along with the soaring number of passengers who tested positive for infection — some of whom first tested negative, and were then allowed to go home. Meanwhile, top officials have reportedly been skipping meetings of the government task force established to deal with the outbreak.
Those officials now must worry about what comes next. Failure to contain this outbreak could trigger a global recession. That will have an outsize effect on Japan. Its companies depend on increasingly fragile global supply chains.
It will hammer the inbound tourism that is a critical contributor to the economy, and could impact the Olympics several months ahead. And all this will happen as the yen appears to be losing its status as a safe haven, a currency to which investors flee at times of international economic uncertainty. Traditionally, the yen strengthened on bad news as investors sell riskier assets; in recent weeks, the yen has weakened against the dollar as the coronavirus crisis has intensified.
A weak domestic economy, a weak yen, a weak Chinese economy and a weakening global outlook. It’s time to start planning for the next crisis — and it could be a doozy.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”