The state of emergency declared by the government this week due to the rapidly expanding number of coronavirus infections in Tokyo and six other prefectures should cause us not to panic but take the situation seriously. Whether we can get the COVID-19 outbreak under control is up to the behavior of each and every one of us. The government, for its part, needs to ensure there is a safety net to protect the livelihood of people who suffer a lost job or income as the nation combats the pandemic.
Unlike the lockdowns being enforced in many major cities in countries experiencing much greater outbreaks, Japan’s state of emergency, which lasts through May 6, lacks penalties for not complying with government requests for people in the designated areas to stay at home except for essential or urgent tasks. Whether this step will effectively curb the growing outbreak depends a great deal on how each individual responds.
Citing experts, the government is asking people to cut back on interactions with others by at least 70 to 80 percent — a move that will hopefully lead to a peak in the infection rate followed by a decline within weeks. How quickly this can be achieved depends on our behavior.
The Abe administration is reported to have hesitated for weeks to declare a state of emergency to avoid a further negative impact on the economy, which was already headed for a recession under the weight of the global pandemic. The step will no doubt hit the economy hard as people and businesses curb their activities.
Along with declaring a state of emergency, the Abe administration adopted a ¥108 trillion economic package to ease the economic pain from the pandemic. It is touted as the largest-ever — indeed it is nearly twice the size of the ¥56 trillion stimulus introduced amid the global financial crisis following the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. But the sheer size of the package — even larger than the government’s fiscal 2020 annual budget — aside, its substance must be scrutinized to make sure that sufficient support will be provided to the people most heavily affected — those who lose their job or income in the pandemic.
A credible safety net to protect people’s livelihood will be a must to ensure the public’s cooperation in the fight against the virus, especially as it remains uncertain how long it will last. The economic package must be reviewed and updated to see if it’s helping those who really need the support.
The main priority is halting a breakdown in the medical service system, which has already been strained to the brink by the pandemic. The confirmed infections and death toll in Japan may be much smaller than in countries like the United States, Italy, France or Spain, where hundreds of thousands have been infected and more than 10,000 have died. But the fast-accelerating pace of infections in recent days, in particular a sharp increase in the number of patients with untraceable infection routes, has sounded alarms over the possibility of an explosive surge in infections that could cause medical services to collapse.
A situation in which the overstretched medical system becomes unable to provide timely treatment for people with severe symptoms must be averted. This week Tokyo officials began moving COVID-19 patients with mild or no symptoms to hotels so medical institutions can focus their limited resources on those with more serious conditions. What must be avoided at all costs, however, is an explosive increase in infections, which could leave not only COVID-19 patients but people with other serious illnesses unable to get the medical help they need.
Whether the nation can succeed in getting the infections under control and avoid such a catastrophe — while containing the damage to the economy and people’s livelihood — depends heavily on our own immediate efforts. The government must provide enough support to back these efforts. This will be essential to win the public trust’s in the government’s response to what may turn out to be a long crisis.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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