Japan is set to get a new prime minister after Fumio Kishida’s victory in last week’s Liberal Democratic Party presidential election.
In a refreshing spectacle, the Japanese public got to see Kishida and his three competitors actively participate in public policy debates over the past few weeks during one of the most heated and unpredictable races in the history of the ruling party.
Kishida managed to make his case to Japanese voters as to why his plans to battle and arrest the COVID-19 pandemic at home, one of the top issues of concern, will be different from that of his predecessor. The new prime minister would serve the country well, however, by also ensuring that Japan plays a leadership role in the effective global response to COVID-19 and in building future pandemic preparedness for everyone.
The Japanese public expressed great frustration over the government’s handling of the pandemic under the outgoing prime minister, which spiked during the summer ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was also criticized for his lackluster communication skills during the public health crisis.
Admittedly though, it would also be a challenge for any global leader to take care of their own while trying to assist others as well. Still, Kishida has a chance at becoming a global leader by helping end COVID-19 elsewhere in the world — a move that could also see Japan advance both public health outcomes at home as well as its foreign policy goals.
Most people appreciate by now the idea that ensuring safety abroad means greater safety at home, as viruses can cross borders and mutate. As a result of COVID-19 and the use of “vaccine diplomacy” by some countries, the broader foreign policy community is also starting to connect global health to national security issues.
This greater awareness can be leveraged to enhance understanding about the importance of Japan’s contribution in addressing not only COVID-19, but also in advancing global health issues more broadly, including with future pandemic preparedness.
The incoming prime minister actually inherits a successful record as it pertains to Japan’s pledges and contributions made under the previous administration to assist the global COVID-19 response. At the virtual summit held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22, U.S. President Joe Biden tried to rally world leaders around the idea of ending the COVID-19 pandemic and “building back better.”
Biden urged the world to set a goal of fully vaccinating 70% of the populations of all countries in the assembly by 2022. Along with the U.S., which pledged to purchase another 500 million vaccine doses to donate to poorer countries, Japan, a key U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific and a member of the “Quad,” also pledged to double its donated doses from 30 million to 60 million.
The additional pledges by the U.S. and Japan came in response to growing concern among global health leaders regarding the inequitable access to vaccines and the insufficient capacity to administer them in low- to mid-income countries (LMICs).
Public health agencies have come together under the World Health Organization-led Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) initiative, a global partnership to end the COVID-19 pandemic by engaging governments, civil society and industry to accelerate the development and delivery of vaccines, tests and treatments and to strengthen health systems in LMICs.
Despite ACT-A’s efforts, i.e., to raise $38.1 billion to achieve its goals in 2021 to deliver 900 million diagnostic tests, 100 million courses of treatment and 2 billion vaccine doses to such countries, the initiative remains $16.6 billion short of its budget.
Countries in Africa, many of which have a vaccination rate of only 3%, are still struggling to inoculate the rest of their populations with just one dose. That compares to many richer countries that have fully vaccinated more than half of their populations. Despite its slow start, Japan has fully vaccinated over 60% of its population, surpassing the United States’ 55%.
The world desperately needs more leaders in the global fight against COVID-19. And as a country that is a global advocate for universal health coverage and has prioritized health security issues abroad as part of its foreign policy, there is room for Japan to do more.
It is true, Japan has pledged $1.2 billion toward ACT-A, including $1 billion in financial support for COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), an initiative to accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. And it has already delivered 23 million of the 30 million doses that it earlier pledged to donate through COVAX to countries in Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Oceania, and bilaterally to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, in addition to Taiwan. However, Japan has only met half of its “fair share” contribution to ACT-A based on its GDP per capita, and its contributions thus far have focused on Asian regions.
Kishida can ensure that Japan fulfills its pledges as well as build on the contributions already made through international frameworks and the Quad, extending its efforts beyond just vaccine donations.
Through UNICEF and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Japan has, under its “Last One Mile” program, provided 59 countries with cold-storage facilities and transportation support to ensure that vaccines reach inoculation sites.
Japan has also provided support to strengthen health systems for disease control. For example, the JICA has provided equipment such as masks, gloves, thermometers and antiseptics to countries in Central Asia and other regions to support their immigration control efforts.
The nation’s long-standing partner, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has also played a key role in expanding testing and treatment by providing key inputs such as PCR test kits, medical oxygen, and personal protection equipment, as well as in the training of health workers and enhancing disease surveillance systems with contact tracing.
Earlier this year, Washington and Tokyo vowed to work together to “build longer-term global health security” under the U.S.-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era. Japan, through its soft power approach, also has a reputation for its quality- and people-focused development assistance, dedication to capacity-building and its record of long-term success in targeted countries.
Kishida, who has wanted to strengthen Japan’s soft power and promotion of human rights, has a chance to build on this track record. If he can effectively communicate to the Japanese people that the nation’s commitment to global health and human security will ultimately serve the country’s public health and national interests, the new leader has a chance of being recognized as a global leader, too.
Kazuyo Kato is executive director at Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE/USA).
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