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JAPAN: Abe unveils new policies to combat epidemic as public support falters

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  • The Abe government unveiled a new basic policy to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak on 25 February.
  • The absolute number of cases remains relatively low, the government is hoping to prevent the emergence of the large disease clusters seen in other countries.
  • The government’s response thus far has dented Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reputation as a leader, and his political future will depend heavily on whether the government’s performance improves.

With the number of novel coronavirus cases continuing to rise and financial markets facing severe volatility as the outbreak spreads in new countries, the Abe government unveiled a new basic policy for combating the outbreak on Tuesday, 25 February. Having failed to keep the virus offshore, the government’s focus will now be on preventing the small clusters of cases – which can now be found in 18 of Japan’s 47 prefectures – from spreading into bigger clusters.

JAPAN: Abe unveils new policies to combat epidemic as public support falters 1

Whether this policy is able to contain the coronavirus’s spread remains to be seen, but it is increasingly clear that the public health crisis has become a serious threat to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His approval ratings have continued to fall, in part because the public is losing faith in Abe as a trustworthy leader and source of political stability. Worryingly for the prime minister, his Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) support has also fallen. He has been increasingly criticized for indecisive leadership, as critics argue that his government’s responses to the widening outbreak have been repeatedly lax, reactive, and inadequate for reducing the risks of a widespread outbreak in Japan. He has also been less visible as the crisis has deepened, allowing Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare Katsunobu Kato to take the lead in communicating with the public instead of taking responsibility for public communications himself. Opposition parties, meanwhile, have criticized the government for not devoting enough money to its management of the outbreak and have called upon the administration to update the FY2020 budget – which is expected to pass the House of Representatives this week – to earmark funds specifically for responding to the coronavirus outbreak. The administration is also facing calls from within the ruling coalition to create a Japanese equivalent to the US’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to centralize the government’s response to epidemics.

JAPAN: Abe unveils new policies to combat epidemic as public support falters 2

Therefore, Abe is depending on the new basic policy not only to slow the outbreak but also to reverse the impression that he and his government have failed at crisis management. The government will urge organizers to exercise discretion on whether to convene large public events but will not ban them outright. It will encourage those who believe they may have the virus to stay home – while urging employers to allow anyone suspected of having the illness to work from home and schools to relax their leave policies for staff and even to close temporarily – but will also strengthen the ability of healthcare providers in the field to detect and treat more serious cases. The government’s goal is to ensure that the public health system has the capacity for treating patients with serious symptoms, while discouraging people with milder symptoms from inadvertently spreading the virus. The administration is planning to dispatch a team to Hokkaido, which has seen a marked increase in cases, and will also step up its monitoring of Japanese nationals who had been aboard the Diamond Princess, some of whom tested negative while on board the ship but have since fallen ill. The Abe administration will also step up travel restrictions to prevent the transmission of the virus from overseas visitors, with a ban on travelers from the virus-stricken South Korean city of Daegu likely in the coming days, although the government has continued to avoid imposing absolute bans on travelers from China or South Korea.

Anecdotally, employers and event organizers appear to be complying with the government’s strategy. Sports leagues have canceled games and music venues have canceled shows. Large companies have approved teleworking for their employees, most notably with public relations giant Dentsu instructing the 5000 workers at its headquarters to begin telecommuting starting 26 February after an employee tested positive for the virus. For the moment, however, there have been no changes to the year’s biggest public event, the Tokyo Olympics, which the government continues to insist will proceed as planned. On Tuesday, however, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound warned that a final decision whether to proceed would likely have to be made by May.

The fact remains that Abe’s fate appears linked to the outcome of the crisis. If the government’s new policies prevent a sharp increase in the number of cases as seen in South Korea, Italy, and Iran in recent days, Abe may be able to declare his government’s crisis management a success despite early missteps. However, if Japan were to experience its own surge and the emergence of large-scale clusters of new cases, it would not only imperil the Olympics – an embarrassment for a prime minister who has invested in Japan’s hosting the Olympics as an opportunity to display his “new Japan” to the world – but would endanger his premiership. While Abe is unlikely to be forced out while the outbreak is in its acute stages, a wider-reaching epidemic would severely erode confidence in the government and likely lead the LDP to begin searching for a leader to restore trust in the administration, well before Abe’s term ends in September 2021. Even in the best-case scenario, it may be increasingly unlikely that the LDP will change its rules to allow Abe to seek a fourth three-year term.

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JAPAN: Abe unveils new policies to combat epidemic as public support falters

The Abe government unveiled a new basic policy to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak on 25 February. The absolute number of cases remains relatively