The Japanese government continues to flail as it battles the COVID-19 pandemic. Its efforts are inconsistent, illogical and undermined by the actions of top officials. The government’s policies neither inspire confidence nor do they signal to the public the need to take this crisis seriously.
Japan is currently experiencing its third wave of coronavirus infections. The daily number of new infections in Japan exceeded 3,000 for the first time last Saturday, with around 188,000 people as of Wednesday being diagnosed with the disease, more than 25,000 hospitalized and the death toll exceeding 2,700 lives.
Major metropolitan areas are being hit hard, with Tokyo recording 822 cases Thursday, its highest daily total to date, and numbers in Osaka and Hokkaido continue to climb, with hospitals in both areas having reached capacity. Local governments across the country have called on businesses, especially those in the dining and entertainment sectors, to limit their hours. In Tokyo, municipal authorities have offered smaller businesses payments of ¥400,000 if they agree to do so.
Efforts to contain the spread of the infection has been complicated by the government’s Go To Travel campaign, a ¥1.3 trillion ($12 billion) travel subsidy program that was designed to spur domestic travel and compensate for losses caused by the coronavirus. Launched in July, it covers 35% of the cost of travelers’ accommodations along with 15% discounts for restaurant dining and souvenirs; in total about half of travel expenses. More than 52 million travelers used the program since it began until November, even though it excluded travel to and from Tokyo, the country’s largest metropolitan area, until October when the second wave of infections subsided.
Go To Travel was one of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s signature policies to revitalize a battered economy. Unfortunately, it may have also contributed to the spread of the disease. Researchers at the University of Tokyo and the University of California, Los Angeles found that people who participated in the campaign were as much as twice as likely to have COVID-19 symptoms than those who did not. The authors concluded that “The subsidy program may be incentivizing those who had higher risks of COVID-19 transmission to travel.” The Japanese government rejected those conclusions, with officials pointing out that the study only notes symptoms, not actual cases of COVID.
Nevertheless, the increase in cases forced Suga to announce earlier this week that he was suspending the travel program nationally from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11; the suspension starts earlier in Tokyo and Nagoya, while Sapporo and Osaka, with high infection rates, were removed from the campaign in late November. This decision is illogical: If the coronavirus situation demands a response, it should be immediate.
Suga has been determined to continue the campaign, reasoning — correctly — that the economy needs help. But his insistence that the program has not contributed to the spread of the infection defies reason. Worse, his about-face and decision to suspend the program followed a declaration only days before that he was not considering such a move, even though the government subcommittee on anti-virus measures called for a halt to the program in areas where there are rising cases.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic revitalization, has called on the Japanese public “to share a sense of crisis” over the pandemic. Evidence shows that they are not. Even though the government declared last month that the country had entered a “win or lose three weeks” in the effort to contain the pandemic, public behavior remains largely unchanged as infections swelled. Cell phone data shows declines in traffic ranging from 2% to 16% in entertainment districts and tourist attractions across the country. This is a stark contrast to declines of 70% and 80% in April, when the government declared a state of emergency.
The public is unlikely to heed Nishimura’s request when Suga attends private dinners with guests in Ginza. The optics are appalling and undermine support for the prime minister and his Cabinet. Recent polls show double-digit declines in approval for the administration, and one survey shows that 56% of respondents disapprove — either “greatly” (16%) or “somewhat” (40%) — of the government’s response to the pandemic.
The inclination appears to be to soft-pedal policy and trust in individual responsibility. Sadly, there is little evidence to suggest that such an approach will succeed. The public is fatigued and confused, which is understandable given the mixed messages sent. The government needs to act decisively. It should consult with its public health experts, signal that it is prioritizing health over the economy and take actions that prove that stance.
The Go To Travel campaign should be suspended immediately, and impacted businesses offered subsidies to help them through a difficult time. When infections recede and a vaccine is available, then it can resume. People should be actively discouraged from traveling over Christmas and the New Year. If a state of emergency is needed — and that determination should be based on public health, not economic, considerations — then it should be declared. All these decisions should be made in conjunction with local and prefectural authorities, but led by the central government. Efforts must be redoubled to increase public health workers and to ensure their safety. Decisive action that makes clear that the health and well-being of the public come first will help defeat this pandemic and pay dividends for a struggling government.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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