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July 1, 2020

JAPAN: National and local officials seek balanced response as cases rise again

BY Tobias Harris

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The Abe administration’s point man on managing the Covid-19 pandemic, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, was forced to apologize to ruling party lawmakers on Wednesday, 1 July after he announced abruptly last week that the government would dissolve the medical advisory panel that had guided the government’s response since February. A new advisory panel will be convened as a subcommittee of a new advisory council that will include business and local government representatives as well as medical experts, reflecting the administration’s unease about the damage that containing the pandemic has inflicted on Japan’s economy.

However, the furor over the government’s main apparatus for coordinating a response comes amidst a sharp uptick in the number of new cases and questions about what would lead Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reintroduce a state of emergency. The number of cases nationwide climbed to 126 on Wednesday, 1 July, and has increased by more than 100 for four straight days, with the bulk of new cases in Tokyo, which has averaged more than 50 new cases per day, including 67 on Wednesday. But the Abe administration is not rushing to reimpose restrictions or otherwise pause its plans for reopening the economy. On Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied that the situation will require reintroducing a state of emergency and suggested that the government will take into consideration more than just the gross number of new cases when deciding whether to reverse course.

The Tokyo metropolitan government is taking a similarly cautious approach. While Tokyo’s government could reintroduce requests for business closures based on this metric, Governor Yuriko Koike has not yet ordered new business suspensions. Instead, effective from Wednesday, the metropolitan government unveiled seven new metrics to monitor before reintroducing restrictions including, in addition to the number of new confirmed cases, the number of cases of unknown origin, the positivity rate of testing, and several measures of the burden on the medical system. Koike stressed that these metrics would not be applied rigidly to decide whether to impose restrictions but would instead be assessed holistically to determine whether the situation merited a more stringent response. Koike, like the national government, wants to strike a balance between the infection control and safeguarding Tokyo’s economic reopening.

Koike’s reluctance may also in part reflect the impending Tokyo gubernatorial election on 5 July. The rising caseload is unlikely to affect Koike’s chances of winning reelection. She has a solid lead in opinion polls, faces a divided opposition, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has decided to back her instead of running its own candidate against her. The campaign has not surprisingly been dominated by issues related to the pandemic, including the management of the medical system and the impact on businesses, and Koike, who has received plaudits for her aggressive response to the pandemic in Japan’s largest urban center, is likely to win a new mandate. Nevertheless, the steady increase in the number of new cases in Tokyo could confound her desire to balance public health and economic interests, forcing her to reintroduce business suspensions that could set her at odds with the Abe administration.

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