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JAPAN: Government faces balancing act as it fights outbreak ahead of Olympics

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While the overall number of novel coronavirus cases in Japan remains low – only 29 with no deaths – the Abe government’s handling of the now-nearly 200 people who have tested positive aboard the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined at Yokohama, has raised concerns not only about the government’s management of the public health crisis but also about its capacity for detecting and containing the outbreak across Japan. These struggles in turn have sparked concerns about the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics, as Japan prepares for the arrival of millions of international visitors over the summer.

The Abe administration faces a difficult balancing act. The government wants to demonstrate that Japan is capable of coping with the outbreak and is welcoming to visitors but faces domestic pressure to take even more stringent measures to prevent a wider outbreak. A poll by national broadcaster NHK found that 74% support introducing tougher restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals to prevent the outbreak from spreading. To this end, the administration is prepared to widen the ban on entry to foreign nationals who have been in China’s Hubei province to include Zhejiang province. (Other countries have also extended restrictions to include Zhejiang.) Although Zhejiang is another popular site for Japanese investment, the Abe government is not yet planning to charter planes to evacuate Japanese nationals from the province.

The Diamond Princess has been the single biggest challenge for the Abe administration, as the government has struggled with the fallout from quarantining the 3600 passengers and crew aboard the cruise ship, including legal questions about whether the government can impose a quarantine on individuals who have shown no symptoms and criticism of the slow pace of testing and its communications strategy. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) has been testing roughly 300 people per day – focused at first on the most visibly ill – and, while Minister Katsunobu Kato says that the MHLW may be able to test as many as 1000 per day next week, the focus on the cruise ship could stretch the ministry’s capacity to test at other ports of entry. The government has floated the idea of hiring third-party inspectors to supplement the MHLW’s inspectors, while Kato said in the Diet Wednesday that the government might also deploy a hospital ship to handle treatment. Despite the growing international outcry over the cruise ship, it is expected to be quarantined until 19 February, although the quarantine could be extended due to the large number of cases on the ship.

Even as the Abe administration struggles to contain the outbreak, it is bracing for the likely economic costs. As part of a package of emergency measures the administration is prepared to announce this week, the Abe government will use public financial institutions to extend loans and guarantees to small- and medium-sized businesses in the tourism industry and use budgetary reserves to offset the impact of supply chain disruptions.

These competing pressures on the Abe administration will grow as the July opening of the Tokyo Olympics approaches. Even if the number of new cases declines, the government will likely face domestic pressure to ensure that Japan has the capacity to screen – and, if necessary, exclude – foreign visitors without discouraging visitors from attending the games.

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JAPAN: Government faces balancing act as it fights outbreak ahead of Olympics

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text] While the overall number of novel coronavirus cases in Japan remains low – only 29 with no deaths – the Abe government’s handling of the