Commentary / Japan

Don’t run after ‘four hares’ in the pandemic

by Kuni Miyake

Contributing writer

A nearby supermarket was much more crowded than expected when my wife and I went there Saturday morning for essential shopping. An insensitive mother and her daughter, not wearing masks, were standing in the middle of a sidewalk talking to each other and blocking the passage of pedestrians.

During a visit to care for my 92-year-old mother living alone in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Sunday, the whole city was not so crowded but a narrow street leading a famous shrine was still packed with tourists. Although I don’t intend to generalize, such experiences over the first weekend after the government declared a state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic were scary.

My full sympathy goes to the political leaders in Tokyo and elsewhere in the world. Selfish and capricious citizens don’t obey the advice of proud but evasive epidemiologists who despise and remind politicians — more concerned about the economy — that medicine must override politics.

Whatever decision that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might make would never be welcomed. His state of emergency announcement last week was considered as either too late, not effective enough, or both. No matter how competent it may be, if an administration is divided, it is doomed to fail.

This must be happening in capitals across the globe. For instance, last week in Washington when asked if he was ready to reopen the nation by May 1, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “I want to get it open as soon as possible,” “I only hope to God that it’s the right decision” and that “it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.” We can only wish him good luck.

Trump then said, “We’re also setting up a council of very, very great doctors and business people” called ‘The Opening Our Country Task Force’ or ‘Opening Our Country Council,’ so we don’t get it confused with Mike’s task force (led by Vice President Mike Pence), which has done so great.” Another task force? It is called a flip-flop in English.

Obviously, however, Trump is concerned about the U.S. economy. Here in Tokyo, Abe seems to be in a similar but a little better situation. On April 7, the prime minister finally but reluctantly declared a state of emergency that did not authorize him to impose a compulsory “stay-home” order.

A famous proverb by Publilius Syrus says, “If you run after two hares, you will catch neither.” Like its American counterpart, the Abe administration seems to be divided. While medical experts insist on speedier and stricter measures, economic bureaucrats wish that the requested restrictions would be lifted early. The battle still goes on.

This, however, is not the end of the story. Decision-makers must also fight medical bureaucracy and the legal procedures it controls. The Nikkei daily reported last week that Abe, who wanted to facilitate PCR tests sooner to detect COVID-19 infections, had been stonewalled by medical bureaucrats in the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Clearly, those medical bureaucrats were more concerned about a nationwide collapse of the medical service system than identifying who was infected. Worried about its potential side effects, they were also opposed to the use of Avigan, a Japanese drug effective for the flu but still unproven for COVID-19, which is now being championed by Abe.

The situation is similar in Washington. Trump has promoted the potential benefits of using hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 positive patients. He said on Sunday “What do I know, I’m not a doctor” but “I have common sense” and “What have you got to lose?” Give me a break. My common sense tells that we may lose human lives.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration at first warned that the drug’s benefits against the virus is not yet proven, but subsequently issued an emergency authorization for its use. In Tokyo, medical bureaucrats still remember the lessons of the HIV-tainted blood scandal in the 1980s which led to more than 1,000 infections and hundreds of deaths and the indictment of those who allowed the use of tainted blood products.

In case of a crisis, people tend to panic. They get more selfish than usual and doubt whatever the government says. Medical experts have their own sanctuary and don’t wish to be instructed by amateurs. Business circles pressure the government to do something, while the markets can do nothing. This is what a crisis is all about.

On Sunday, six New York Times reporters wrote: “Throughout January, as President Trump repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus and focused on other issues, an array of figures inside his government … identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action.” They may be right.

In Tokyo, fortunately, things seem to be less catastrophic than in Washington but the key four players — politicians, epidemiologists, business circles and citizens — remain the same. “If you run after four hares, instead of two, you will catch none of the four, never!” In a nutshell, you must prioritize the objectives and means.

In a crisis, unfortunately, existing chain of command often malfunctions, and top political leaders may never know the best solutions to the problems. We simply call this a crisis since anything could go wrong in a crisis. Whether they like it or not, the buck always stops in their office. Trump’s is no exception to this rule.

In Tokyo, the daily infection cases reached nearly 200 on Saturday and are expected to increase in the weeks to come. Now that the Olympic Games are postponed and hotel rooms are reserved for non-critical patients, it is high time for Japan to start a mass testing. Otherwise, Tokyo could be like today’s New York City in two weeks or so.

To avoid this, Japan must prioritize several measures. First, it should start mass testing. Second, it should strive to save people in critical condition. Third, it should invest in new medicines. And then, finally, it should reopen the country to rebuild the national and global economy. Doing things in the reverse order, as suggested by Trump, is wrong.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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