Editorials

Is the nation ready for a long battle against COVID-19?

Many major cities around the globe have implemented lockdowns, but Japan’s big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have not yet followed suit. Because of that, a sense of crisis about the coronavirus pandemic among the public seems relatively low. In New York, a ban on eating in restaurants and cafes was imposed March 16, yet within two weeks the rate of infection has soared and the city is now running short of hospital beds and ventilators. Japan should anticipate a similar shortage and quickly build a medical structure that can cope with an arduous fight against COVID-19.

First , public sentiment in Japan must change. Last week, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike requested that residents stay home and avoid nonessential outings over the weekend. Despite the request, Tokyo’s major shopping districts such as Shibuya were crowded with people. At a Monday news conference, she asked that people also avoid going to nighttime entertainment establishments. On weekdays, Tokyo’s rush-hour trains are not as packed as before, but many commuters are still going to work as usual. If the authorities are expecting the outbreak to get worse, merely urging the public to refrain from going out is not an effective measure.

It’s true that the number of confirmed cases of infection in Japan is smaller than other major economies. As of Wednesday, South Korea had 9,887 confirmed cases while Japan as of Thursday had only 2,530. But it should also be noted that South Korea had tested far more people than Japan. By the end of March, South Korea had tested more than 410,000 people, while Japan has tested just over 34,500 as of Thursday. Therefore it’s unclear how much the virus has spread here. The number of confirmed cases doubled every 2.5 days between March 21 and Monday in Tokyo. As testing increases, so will the number of cases.

Given this dire situation, Japanese policymakers should change the current measures that require every person who tested positive to be hospitalized. Tokyo now has about 500 beds for patients with infectious diseases, and close to 400 are occupied. To secure enough beds for patients with severe symptoms, the government should create places to quarantine those who have mild symptoms or allow them to self-quarantine at home. Given the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, the government should also consider utilizing the newly built Olympic-related facilities, such as the athletes village. In New York, Central Park was turned into a field hospital with white medical tents. Also, a massive naval hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, was brought into New York on Monday to accept non-COVID-19 patients to free up beds at local hospitals.

Meanwhile, there are reports that academic laboratories and medical firms in the United States., United Kingdom and Singapore are trying to develop a new blood test to identify disease-fighting antibodies in people who already have been infected by the coronavirus. If people are found to have immunity, it may become possible for them to return to work. If medical workers are found to have immunity, they can also resume work at hospitals.

As we move from one phase to the next in the fight against COVID-19, the government policy focus must also change. Identifying clusters and closing borders have been priorities, but moving forward it will likely become more important to triage patients while trying to increase hospital beds. And in the future, our policy may have to place more emphasis on how to put the economy back on track.

Japan needs to learn from measures already taken by other nations to respond to the situation as quickly as possible. To implement strong measures, however, people’s understanding and support are necessary. A survey conducted by the French TV news channel BFM TV in mid-March revealed that 93 percent of respondents approved of the French government’s stay-home restriction for at least 15 days.

To gain such public support, the Japanese government must disclose information and data about the current situation as well as its future strategy to tackle the pandemic. After all, to bring everyone on board, trust in the government is indispensable.

The Japan Times Editorial Board.

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