Giving Japan Credit for Response to COVID-19

The world has gone through some extraordinary past few months. Everyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, or age, facing the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brings. The end of the crisis may not yet fully be in sight, but some governments have been handling the situation quite well, resulting in making lives a little more manageable for their constituents. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many other nations, where infection rates and mortality rates continue to hold or even soar.

One remarkable case is that of Japan’s, which has been the source of mystery for pundits almost from the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who can forget the now famous Diamond Princess cruise ship whose passengers and crew were quarantined in the far eastern nation? It seems like an eon has passed, but it was only a few month ago when the Japanese government, with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo at the helm, had to dive straight into the COVID-19 waters without having the chance to dip a toe to at least test the temperature. The British-American ship docked in Japan three months ago (leaving only in mid-May), carrying with it infected individuals. The rest of the world was still blissfully unaware of the extent of damage the virus would bring, but Japan already had to take steps to contain it, take care of the passengers and crew, and make plans to prepare for the inevitable spread. The government was criticized regarding their response, but one has to admit that they operated within practically one hand tied behind their back and with no manual to follow. There were some 700 people infected, but the mortality rate was kept at a minimum.

Not long after the cruise ship problem, Japan had to deal with infection amongst its citizens. In this, the Prime Minister showed wisdom in handing the reigns over to the experts. The government set up a task force comprised of professionals knowledgeable in handling medical crises. With their expertise, they were able to create an effective model of cluster tracing and containment. By following this model, Japan has been able to efficiently identify infected individuals without having to conduct mass testing, making it cost effective as well.

Additionally, the Prime Minister also decided to shut down schools and other similar institutions, as well as mass gatherings not far into the pandemic. Knowing full well how this would adversely affect the economy, the government nevertheless imposed restrictions in order to contain the virus early on. New legislation was created to empower the government to declare a state of emergency because of the pandemic. Early in April, a state of emergency was implemented in the prefectures of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyōgo, and Fukuoka. This was expanded to cover the entire country in the middle of the month and was extended to May 6 as a response to the severity of the situation. This declaration was announced to be further extended till the end of May, but on the 25th, PM Abe addressed the nation stating that there is to be a gradual re-opening of the economy. That is, the nationwide state of emergency was to be lifted. And, with only a few dozen infections reported daily (from a peak of about 700), it cannot be denied that the Japanese government has been handling the situation well.

Another admirable thing is that Japan has managed to keep mortality rates within its infected population low. Critics keep saying this is a mystery, but if one takes a minute to objectively analyze the situation, a simple answer could be that the country’s healthcare system and technology are effective. The institutions they have in place work. Simple as that. Of course, the strongly-imbedded sense of personal hygiene and health has also contributed to the containment of the virus in general. This includes wearing of masks on a regular basis, even before the COVID-19 virus was identified.

The government’s response to the virus has not been limited to containment measures. In early April, a considerable sum was set aside for what is being dubbed as the largest-ever stimulus package – 108 trillion yen, which is equivalent to 1 trillion US dollars. Together with the lifting of the national state of emergency, the government announced a second round of economic assistance, bringing the total amount to 200 trillion yen (almost 2 trillion US dollars). This new stimulus package is meant to boost small and medium-sized businesses, providing interest-free loans and rent waivers, as well as assistance of 200,000 yen to medical front-liners.

There will always be critics speaking out loudly and nitpicking. However, the results show clearly that the Japanese government is doing something right in its response to COVID-19, and they should receive some credit for that.

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