- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for Japan’s schools to close for the first two weeks of March as his government scrambles to contain the widening COVID-19 outbreak.
- This decision is a significant gamble for Abe, as it may do little to contain the outbreak while angering the public and reinforcing the impression that his leadership has been lacking during the crisis.
The Abe government’s response to the widening COVID-19 outbreak entered a new phase on Thursday, 27 February, after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formally requested that the country’s schools close for two weeks beginning on 2 March. While the government cannot order schools to close, this decision is a particularly drastic step for the central government to take. With the Japanese school year over in mid-March, school closures will mean that children will effectively be out of school for the entire month. As such, this step signals both the government’s alarm at the outbreak’s trajectory and – perhaps more importantly – Abe’s awareness that mismanaging the outbreak could critically damage his premiership. At this stage, however, it seems unlikely that this step will either contain the outbreak or restore the public’s confidence in Abe’s leadership.
Indeed, this decision will likely amplify criticism that Abe is reacting to events step by step instead of pursuing a coherent containment strategy. This step was not mentioned in the basic policy adopted Tuesday, and appears to go beyond what the government’s own experts were recommending. Japan’s local school administrators – who must decide whether to accept the prime minister’s request – had little advance notice. School closures will also provoke harsh reactions from parents who, if they are not already telecommuting, will have to scramble on short notice to arrange childcare for two weeks. This problem could be especially acute for nurses and other emergency workers in virus-stricken areas. Meanwhile, although experts suggest that the school closures could have some benefit in places where there are already clusters of cases, it may be less effective in places where such cases have not been seen. Finally, it could raise the overall level of public alarm and lead to panic buying and hoarding, even as it brings much of Japanese public life to a standstill in March, exacerbating the negative growth already expected in Q1.
The Abe government is already preparing additional measures in order to contain the outbreak. On Thursday, Abe hinted at the possibility of a coronavirus countermeasures bill that would strengthen the government’s ability to combat the outbreak and mitigate its economic impact. As expected, the administration also announced new travel restrictions, forbidding entry to foreigners who have been in Daegu city and Cheongdo county in South Korea within the past 14 days. Other restrictions remain possible – the government stressed that it will make such determinations based on the number of infected people within a given area – but the Abe administration has continued to resist calls from within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to extend existing travel restrictions to include all of China. Another change is that from next week the national health insurance system will begin covering COVID-19 tests, enabling private medical institutions to administer the exam. This change could result in a more comprehensive picture of the virus’s spread in Japan. As of Thursday, the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW) has tested only 1,229 people, excluding tests administered to Japanese nationals evacuated from China. South Korea, by contrast, has administered more than 66,000 tests as of Thursday. Finally, the government, facing demands from opposition and ruling parties to allocate more funding to assist businesses affected by the outbreak, may be preparing a stimulus package for small- and medium-sized businesses, particularly in the service sector.
Accordingly, while it is possible that the new measures – including the basic policy announced earlier this week – could contain the COVID-19 outbreak, it is increasingly apparent that it is the greatest crisis Abe has faced as prime minister. As a political event, it has already drawn comparisons to the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdown, which crippled Kan Naoto’s premiership and led to his resignation five months later. (Kan took to Twitter to criticize Abe’s leadership after the school closure policy was announced.) The absence of an effective and popular opposition may give Abe more room to maneuver than Kan had, but if Abe’s falling approval ratings begin to weigh down the ruling coalition, Abe could struggle to retain power amidst pressure from ruling party lawmakers.