The government finally lifted the state of emergency in the Tokyo metropolitan area and Hokkaido earlier this week, but the battle against COVID-19 is far from over.
Whether in several weeks or a few months, a second coronavirus wave will likely hit Japan. To better prepare for this scenario, it is necessary to determine what measures need to be introduced now and swiftly implement them while slowly resuming economic activities.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe boasted "The Japanese model has demonstrated its strength,’’ during a news conference on Monday in which he declared an end to the state of emergency across the country. World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called Japan’s efforts to contain the epidemic a "success,’’ saying that it has managed to reduce the spread of infection and maintain the number of COVID-19 deaths at a relatively low level. So far Japan has reported around 870 fatalities.
But no one is really sure what the real reason is behind the nation's success. Some say it's because Japanese people are highly health-conscious, and wash their hands and gargle frequently. Others cite a study released in May that found that countries such as Japan that require the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) tuberculosis vaccination, reported fewer COVID-19 fatalities than countries that don’t. But neither explanation has been verified as a compelling reason.
To better cope with a second coronavirus wave, Japan needs to build a system where more polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests can be done. As of the end of April, the number of PCR tests per 100,000 people in Japan stood at only 188. The figure is one-sixth of South Korea and one-tenth of the United States.
The reason why schools and many shops had to be closed is because there is no way of knowing who is infected with the virus without sufficient PCR testing and Japan has only tested people who are highly suspected of being infected. Unless Japan raises its capacity to carry out PCR tests, there will be no means to protect its health care system other than shutting schools and businesses once again if another outbreak occurs.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is now aiming to triple the number of testing from the end of April to 10,000 per day. Moreover, the health ministry will soon approve PCR tests using saliva instead of a throat swab. This method will slash testing times to an hour from the current six hours. Shimadzu Corp. has already confirmed that its testing kits can be used this way.
The government decided to lift the state of emergency primarily because the nation’s faltering economy needs to be supported. According to Teikoku Databank, the number of domestic bankruptcies this year is expected to surpass 10,000 for the first time in seven years. Meanwhile, the number of voluntary business closures that are not officially categorized as bankruptcies is likely to reach 25,000.
On Wednesday, the Cabinet approved a second supplementary budget totaling ¥31.9 trillion to enable another relief package worth over ¥100 trillion. It is commendable that the package includes financial support to cover from one-third to two-thirds of business operators' rent up to ¥6 million, among many other measures. But it must be noted that the government policies announced earlier, such as providing ¥100,000 for every individual and subsidies to support shops and bars that voluntarily closed, have yet to be fully implemented.
Following the 2008 global financial crisis, there was a spike in bankruptcies among manufacturers. This time a sharp decline in foreign tourists severely affected the hotel and the tourism industries, while the state of emergency inflicted tremendous financial damage on restaurants and bar operators. The transportation industry is expected to be impacted next. As more companies encourage employees to work from home, demand for office space in urban areas is also likely to drop sharply, which will affect the real estate industry. Many other industries are likely to suffer as well.
Unless the government’s financial support reaches those who are in need, there will be more bankruptcies and more people out of work. The government must make an effort to make the paperwork process as smooth as possible and quickly offer financial aid to businesses that need it.
Different phases of the pandemic require different policy measures. The government and health officials should utilize the lessons they learned in the first phase of the epidemic. If they can prepare better for the second wave of COVID-19, it will be possible to avoid a second state of emergency.
The Japan Times Editorial Board