Doctor leading response to the pandemic says limiting damage to economy is vital
The doctor leading Japan’s response to coronavirus has defended the decision not to implement a national lockdown, saying that elimination of the virus was impossible and it was necessary to limit the damage to the economy.
The comments by Shigeru Omi, chair of the expert committee that advises prime minister Shinzo Abe, highlight the country’s distinctive approach to the epidemic. Japan, along with Sweden, has sought to limit cases without putting a total freeze on economic activity or making social distancing mandatory.
“Japan wants to bring down the number of cases but it’s impossible to bring it down to zero because of the nature of the disease,” said Dr Omi. He added that the severity of future waves would depend on how public behaviour adapted to the virus.
“Maybe there’ll be another small wave or a big wave depending on how people behave. I think that will continue for some time,” he said. “That’s why we want to balance the maintenance of socio-economic activity with managing this outbreak.”
Mr Abe declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures on April 7, which has since been extended nationwide. Unlike compulsory lockdowns in most of Europe and some US states, however, social distancing in Japan is voluntary — in part because of a constitutional right to free movement. Some businesses, such as gyms, have been asked to close but others, such as restaurants, remain open.
Business leaders have criticised even those restrictions. Tadashi Yanai, the founder of Fast Retailing, the clothing retailer, said the state of emergency should only have been declared in limited areas. “If you just ask everyone to stay at home, the economy would collapse,” he told the FT.
Good hygiene and effective contact tracing means the coronavirus outbreak in Japan has grown slowly. But Mr Abe was forced to declare a state of emergency so rising numbers did not overwhelm the healthcare system. Japan now has reported 11,919 cases and 287 deaths.
If 80 per cent of physical contacts can be avoided, we expect to reduce the level of infections dramatically, even without locking down our citizens
Dr Omi urged the Japanese public to increase its social distancing, warning that a failure to comply would mean the state of emergency would need to stay in place for longer.
“If 80 per cent of physical contacts can be avoided, we expect to reduce the level of infections dramatically, even without locking down our citizens,” he said. “If it’s 70 per cent, then it takes more than two times the period — two months actually. With 60 per cent, the number of cases will plateau — that’s our calculation.”
Dr Omi said the goal was to reduce the number of coronavirus cases to a level where they could once again be managed through contact tracing.
The assumption that coronavirus is impossible to eliminate also informs Japan’s approach to testing. The country has carried out about 130,000 tests compared with more than 500,000 in South Korea, a country with less than half the population.
Dr Omi said he wanted to expand Japan’s testing capacity to the point where everybody with a medical need could get tested. But Japan does not plan to test healthy people for reassurance or to control the spread of the virus.
“We don’t have the capacity and it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Dr Omi was confident the health system would detect cases of pneumonia, giving an accurate reading on the level of Covid-19 disease.
He pointed to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido as an example of how the coronavirus outbreak could evolve. The prefectural governor declared a local state of emergency on February 26 in response to a jump in the number of cases.
The public changed their behaviour and the number of new cases fell to just one or two a day during March. But the number of cases has surged again in April. Dr Omi expects that pattern to repeat.
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