If 2020 will go down in history as the year of COVID-19, then 2021 will be remembered — it is hoped — as the Great Recovery. Yet even as the world envisions life after the pandemic, events of the last year have been revealing and disturbing. The COVID-19 outbreak has been a mirror for society, sadly exposing more blemishes and failures than heroism and compassion. Pervasive is lassitude, or perhaps more accurately a fatigue with the vigilance and discipline required to contain and defeat the disease. That is understandable — a year of self-control is exhausting. But it also reveals a seeming indifference to the fate of others, especially the weakest and most vulnerable in society. We are better than this.

Japan’s first case of COVID-19 was reported Jan. 16. The number of confirmed cases has risen steadily, but not nearly as sharply as in other countries. As of Wednesday, the nation had recorded 226,596 incidents of COVID-19 infection — 42nd in the world — with that toll growing to 3,852 cases daily, 189,000 people have recovered and there have been 3,349 deaths. The toll is rising, but it remains well below other countries.

Fortunately, this country’s health care system is one of the best in the world; a persistent indicator is that Japanese citizens enjoy one of the world’s longest life expectancies. Still, there are worrying signs. There is a lack of health care professionals and doctors, a relatively low number of beds per 1,000 inhabitants, and a small percentage of those are reserved for infectious diseases.

The national government response to the coronavirus outbreak has been haphazard, slow and largely a reaction to events rather than an attempt to get in front of them. It established a COVID-19 Countermeasures Headquarters on Jan. 30., published emergency countermeasures two weeks later and its Basic Policies for Coronavirus Disease Control two weeks after that. Drastic steps such as border controls or curfews were avoided at first; the government instead emphasized identifying factors behind the spread of the disease, a process that yielded the now-famous san mitsu — closed places, crowded places and close proximity between individuals — that were to be avoided. The government declared a state of health emergency on April 7 — first in seven prefectures then for the entire country — which lasted until May 25. During that time, citizens were asked to stay home and many businesses asked to suspend operation.

In May, the government urged citizens to adopt a “new lifestyle” to combat the disease. This included social distancing; wearing a mask; washing hands and changing clothes when returning home; traveling only when necessary and keeping a record of encounters; remote work; online shopping; takeout dining; avoidance of large-scale events; and other common-sense measures. The government employed a light touch — “recommending” rather than “imposing” — and has favored economic concerns over public health considerations.

It can be argued that a low fatality rate despite a lackadaisical response means that the threat isn’t severe and government measures appropriate. That approach substitutes good luck for policy as no one knows why Japan’s death rate has been low.

Much of the credit has been attributed to behavioral quirks of the Japanese. Mask wearing is ubiquitous. There is less obesity, better hygiene and less personal contact among individuals (handshakes, kisses) than in the West. One theory offers that Japanese is less sibilant than Western languages, which results in fewer droplets in the air. Finally, there is speculation that the Japanese variant of the virus is less dangerous than those found elsewhere.

The limits of the light touch approach have been exposed as the country experienced second and third waves of infections, and the government was forced to suspend its national Go To Travel campaign. Whatever the explanation for Japan’s initial success, a new approach is needed.

Two adjustments are needed. First, the government should focus more on public health and less on the economics of the pandemic. Japan has a culture of forgiveness for business; the focus should be on helping individuals.

Assistance should come with a price, however: better adherence to COVID protocols, which is the second adjustment. As the pandemic has continued, individuals have become less risk averse. During the initial wave of infections in the spring, Japanese drastically changed their behavior: One analysis of cell phone data showed declines of 70% and 80% in traffic to entertainment districts and tourist spots across the country. In December, amidst the third wave, the public was indifferent, with traffic to those same places falling in ranges of just 2% to 16%. Businesses, especially small and often crowded drinking establishments, are resisting government calls to close early.

Fatigue is understandable. Self-discipline is hard, especially for a year. But it betrays a stunning indifference and selfishness. COVID-19 is an infectious disease and Japan has especially vulnerable populations. The readiness of some individuals to ignore the threat forces many others who do not have that freedom — usually a result of economic circumstances — to put themselves at risk.

The abdication of personal responsibility mirrors the government’s refusal to take more serious action. Both must stop. The government must create an environment that rewards responsible individual decision making. The next inflection point will arrive when the vaccine is made available. Japan has one of the lowest levels of confidence in vaccines in the world. It should not be surprising then that in a recent NHK poll, more than one-third (36%) of respondents said they did not want to take a COVID-19 vaccine. That would ensure that this threat persists.

Only by working together — as citizens and residents, politicians, bureaucrats and medical health professionals — can we defeat COVID-19 and make 2021 the year of recovery and opportunity that all hope it will be.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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