Editorials

Government assistance is vital in pandemic

The state of emergency declared more than two weeks ago to combat the rapid spread of COVID-19 infections in Tokyo and six other prefectures — urging people to stay home and shops to shutter or run on reduced hours — has since been expanded nationwide. But as infections continue to increase it remains far from clear when the contagion can be brought under control, much less whether the state of emergency will be lifted by early May as envisioned by the government.

What seems clear is that the nation is in for a long battle against the novel coronavirus. As we are forced to curb social and economic activities for an extended period to contain the infections, support must be provided for people who lose their jobs or suffer partial losses of income in the process. A uniform ¥100,000 payout to each individual — adopted last week after time-wasting policy flip-flops — is only the first step in a sustained effort to protect the most vulnerable people during this crisis.

In declaring the state of emergency on April 7, effective through May 6, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on people to cut human-to-human contact by at least 70 percent — and hopefully by 80 percent — so that the measure could be ended in a month. An 80 percent reduction in interactions, he said, would see the growth in infections peak within two weeks and then decrease. Behind the call was the accelerating pace of the domestic outbreak. While it took two months from the first confirmed case in mid-January for infections to reach 1,000, it only took about a month for the figure to top 10,000.

Experts say the effects of such social distancing measures will likely be confirmed within a month if an 80 percent reduction is achieved but warn that it will take twice as long if the cut is only 70 percent — and that the rate of new infections will not decrease if the reduction is limited to 60 percent. The government's measure, which falls short of the strict lockdowns that are being enforced in many other countries, will take longer to have an effect if it's not closely followed.

The track record since the emergency declaration has been mixed. While the number of people going to popular shopping and entertainment areas in central Tokyo has been significantly reduced, people are reportedly flocking to local shopping streets in large numbers. Commuter trains are less packed, but the ratio of people working from home remains limited, albeit rising. Overall, we do not appear to be getting near an 80 percent reduction in social interactions.

COVID-19 infections continue to grow by the hundreds each day. Tokyo, hit by the largest number of infections across the country, is seeing 100 or more new cases daily, although an explosive and uncontrollable spike has so far been averted. The 123 cases reported in the capital on Tuesday included 12 patients and medical staff infected at a hospital specially designated for the treatment of infectious diseases, which then decided to suspend the acceptance of new emergency patients. The medical service system is under increasing strain, and the situation could get worse if infections become more widespread in rural regions where the health care system is even more fragile.

The Abe administration is believed to have hesitated for weeks to declare an emergency out of fear it would cause the economy to grind to a halt. It is said to have resisted when Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike tried to call on a broader range of businesses to shut down to contain the rate of infections.

However, there's no way for Japan to be immune to the catastrophic impact of the pandemic on the worldwide economy. Forecasting a 3.0 percent decline of the global economy this year — far more disastrous than in the worldwide recession following the Lehman shock of 2008 — the International Monetary Fund predicts that Japan's economy will shrink by 5.2 percent. A subsequent recovery will depend on getting the pandemic under control, but how soon that can be achieved remains to be seen.

One forecast warns that the number of unemployed could increase by more than 1 million in Japan, as people in unstable, irregular positions are already losing their jobs. A protracted pandemic and recession will test the nation's safety net for those members of society who are most vulnerable in the crisis.

As the government declared the state of emergency, the Abe administration adopted an economic package worth ¥108 trillion — touted as the largest ever. But the sheer size of it does not guarantee people who need financial assistance will get it.

Opinions are mixed about the change in the government's plan from offering ¥300,000 each to households that have suffered from income losses due to the pandemic — which would have covered only 20 percent of the total due to tight conditions — to a uniform ¥100,000 payout to each individual. But the payout, which is still expected to take at least several more weeks to reach people, will fall woefully short of what's needed by those whose livelihoods have been badly damaged. As the crisis looks set to become protracted, a mechanism must be explored to keep providing support for such people on a sustained basis.

Even as the state of emergency empowers prefectural governors to call on local businesses to shut down to contain the infections, the national government has rejected direct compensation for business owners who heed the request. Some prefectures offer financial support for such businesses, but there are steep gaps in the level of support due to the disparity in the fiscal health of each prefectural government.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis will test how well the nation protects the people and businesses in an emergency. Since the cooperation of both are essential to win the fight against the new coronavirus, sustained government support is vital.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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