Japan declares emergency as COVID-19 cases hit record high

Yoshihide Suga announces a one-month emergency in Tokyo and surrounding areas, but experts say the measure is inadequate.

A large screen on a building shows the live broadcast of Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declaring a state of emergency for Tokyo and three neighbouring prefectures, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan January 7, 2021 [Issei Kato/Reuters]

Tokyo, Japan – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared on Thursday a one-month state of emergency in Tokyo and surrounding areas, urging residents of the capital to avoid going out and asking bars and restaurants to close by 8pm amid a record surge in COVID-19 infections.

The emergency will run from Friday until February 7 and will cover the capital and three neighbouring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba – a region home to about 30 percent of the country’s population.

“I’m very alarmed by the severe situation nationwide recently,” Suga told a news conference. “Please take this matter seriously as your own, to protect all precious life, your grandparents, family and friends.”

The declaration came as Tokyo logged a new daily high of 2,447 COVID-19 infections, a figure that shattered the record 1,591 cases reported on Wednesday. Nationwide, a new record of more than 7,000 cases was reported on Thursday.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Japan – which has the oldest population in the world – has recorded more than 266,000 cases and 3,859 deaths, figures far below those seen in many of the world’s advanced economies.

Suga also imposed caps on attendance at sporting and other events at 5,000 people and urged residents of the four prefectures to work from home in a bid to reduce commuter traffic by 70 percent.

He pledged more aid for hospitals treating COVID-19 patients and said efforts were under way to approve a vaccine and begin inoculations by late February.

The emergency is Japan’s second but is more limited than the one imposed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last April, when mass gatherings were cancelled and schools, businesses and nightclubs were largely closed nationwide for about six weeks.

Reducing transmission is key for Japan as the country is in the midst of preparations to host the delayed Tokyo Olympics in July. But medical experts say the measures on Thursday may not be adequate to curb Japan’s third and severest wave.

A man, wearing a protective mask against COVID-19, walks past empty tables at a restaurant in Tokyo, Japan, January 7, 2021 [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

Kenji Shibuya, professor at Kings College London, the United Kingdom, called for a nationwide lockdown and said the impact of the new restrictions “will be limited given the current increase in cases”.

“The prime minister’s primary focus is to revamp the economy, which is understandable. B­ut to do this, you really need to suppress the transmission of the virus,” Shibuya told Al Jazeera from Tokyo. “They should announce a lockdown.”

Shibuya also criticised the government’s decision to primarily target bars and restaurants, saying: “In 60 percent of cases, they don’t know where they got the infection.

“It could be household, workspaces, schools, we don’t know. Still, they are saying that eating out is a major source of transmission, which is not necessarily backed up by the evidence.”

Hiroshi Nishiura, an epidemiologist at Kyoto University, said on Tuesday that limiting business hours for restaurants in Tokyo would only reduce cases to about 1,300 per day by the end of February. The number is much higher than the 500 cases per day that Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s pandemic response, said was needed for the emergency declaration to be lifted.

Nishiura said for cases to come down to manageable levels, an emergency declaration would need to last at least two months and restrictions would need to be tightened further.

“Efficacy must be prioritised if the government plans to declare an emergency,” he said. “If the effort were to fail, there could be enormous social and economic damages, in addition to psychological ones.”

Japanese law does not allow the country’s authorities to force compliance with the emergency measures, but legislators were in talks to propose legislation to punish individuals or businesses who do not abide by the restrictions.

For now, the Japanese government plans to name and shame those who fail to close early and offer subsidies of 60,000 Japanese yen ($579) per day to businesses that do so.

Restaurant owners in the Tokyo area said the new measures will result in more suffering for the hospitality sector.

“Many older customers we used to see haven’t shown up for a while, even before announcing early closing hours,” said Mihoko Hiramatsu, who runs a Japanese restaurant in downtown Tokyo. “During the last state of emergency, I had to furlough our staff due to temporary closure. This time I decided to get rid of the break between lunch and dinner hours to keep our place open as much as possible.”

Yuji Tanabe, who runs a ramen shop in Tokyo, said he would cooperate with the new measures.

“There’s no other option,” he said.

Tanabe said the average turnout at dinner has already dropped by half, but customer numbers at lunchtime have remained about 80 percent compared with the pre-pandemic levels. Maintaining alternative channels like food deliveries and the online sale of cook-at-home ramen kits have been crucial for the shop’s survival, he said.

He welcomed the stipend for compliance, but noted the amount “would never be enough for nighttime-dependent businesses like bars”.

Before the emergency declaration, some businesses not subject to the new measures such as the Tokyo Disney Resort also said they would close early.

Meanwhile, organisers of the Tokyo Olympics also said they would postpone the display of the Olympic torch around the capital.

Suga, who earlier this week pledged to make Japan’s hosting of the Olympics a “proof that humanity has defeated the virus”, doubled down on the plan on Thursday. “We are determined to hold safe and peaceful Olympic Games with full anti-infection measures,” he said.

Kantaro Komiya reported from Tokyo, Japan. Zaheena Rasheed reported from Male, Maldives.

Source: Al Jazeera