Commentary / Japan

Don't squander the chance to shine as a COVID-19 outlier

New York City is at a standstill. So, too, is Washington, while the 40 million residents of the state of California have been ordered to stay home. Eerily quiet streets have become the norm in cities across the United States, while Europe too has grounded to a halt amid efforts to institutionalize social distancing.

In fact, Japan is actually the exception to the rule of a new pandemic-fearing world. Having been one of the first countries to be hit — and be criticized — about dealing with the new coronavirus, Japan is emerging as one of the few nations that have been able to push back against the pandemic. It’s far too early, though, for Tokyo to pat itself on the back. In fact, it’s telling that despite Japan’s ability to keep COVID-19’s spread in check, few countries have looked to the Abe administration as an example to follow.

That’s not to belittle what has been achieved thus far. After a disastrous beginning in dealing with contagion on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Japan has succeeded in preventing the coronavirus from spreading further. In fact, from being one of the most infected, Japan was ranked in 26th place in infection rate as of Monday. The same narrative rings true for the rest of East Asia. From being the epicenter of the outbreak, the region has now seen the rate of spread stabilize while the rest of the world grapples with surging numbers of those succumbing to the virus.

Japan can congratulate itself for flattening the infection curve and keeping the spread in check. Yet as the U.S. and Europe take on extraordinary measures including closing schools, shutting down businesses, preventing large groups from gathering, imposing border controls and enforcing quarantines among others, few foreign governments have looked to Tokyo for guidance on actionable steps.

Of course, Japan’s adherence to social order and hygiene standards, as well as Abe’s policies to prevent large gatherings early on have been lauded. However, it is the high rate and efficiency of testing for the virus in South Korea and Seoul’s tracking of those in self-quarantine that is being scrutinized as a possible model to emulate in the U.S.

Taiwan’s integration of technology to make sure that ministries are able to share information about the health as well as travel records has been much touted. So, too, has its ability to prevent stockpiling by providing timely information about highly sought-after goods such as masks and medicine.

Tokyo, on the other hand, has introduced few health care policies that have won over international public opinion as role models.

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving crisis on multiple fronts. It is, of course, first and foremost a global health crisis. But it is also a crisis for the global economy, with the full extent of the damage caused as a result of businesses large and small grinding to a halt worldwide still unknown. The social impact of economic paralysis is not easy to assess, either, but speculation is abound that unemployment rates will surge, smaller businesses will suffer disproportionately, and the hospitality and transportation industries in particularly will have to grapple with tremendous losses from which they may not be able to rebound quickly enough. The pandemic has also emerged as a crisis in confidence of government leadership, and growing concerns about whose interests would be reflected by policies. In the U.S., the viral outbreak has made the shortcomings of U.S. health care and social safety nets particularly acute.

It has also underlined the deep income as well as racial divide in the U.S., whereby those who have well-paid, white-collar jobs with health insurance are able to adhere to the government’s call to work from home and avoid infection. Hourly workers with irregular jobs, meanwhile, continue to provide the much-needed services of feeding and cleaning up after the population, but at the cost of their own health.

In bracing for the economic and social upheaval worldwide ahead, Japan actually has much to share with the world. Although Japanese growth never froze following the two decades after the collapse of the bubble economy, economic expansion did drop precipitously for a prolonged period. Yet Japan’s unemployment rate has not reached above 6 percent during the doldrums, and the country has been able to insulate itself from social disruptions that usually accompany sudden economic downturns.

The price for that stability has been hefty, as Japan has effectively passed on the cost of stability to future generations by incurring record amounts of debt. As such, Japan’s solution to overcoming drastic economic change is hardly ideal. Still, the commitment of the world’s third-largest economy to adhere to a social compact whereby the government will ensure stability by spreading the pain as well as the wealth will be a stance that many world leaders may want to take a hard look at.

Sooner or later, the pandemic will subside and the real battle of getting businesses on track and people back to work will begin. Japan’s track record of balancing the needs for broader economic growth and investing in human capital should attract renewed attention as the world looks to recover from an unprecedented crisis.

Shihoko Goto is deputy director for geoeconomics and senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.

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