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July 7, 2020

JAPAN: Abe government pushes balanced approach but critics fret about new cases

BY Tobias Harris

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The Abe government’s revamped Covid-19 advisory panel, which now includes business and labor representatives as well as the governor of Tottori prefecture, held its first meeting on Monday, 6 July. Now a subcommittee of a ministerial-level committee, the panel’s deliberations highlighted the administration’s determination to balance public health and economic considerations even as the number of new cases – particularly in Tokyo – continues to rise again. The Abe government has argued that since the new cases include relatively few severe cases who have tended to be younger individuals, it will proceed with its plans for gradually reopening the Japanese economy, for example by raising the maximum number of attendees at public events from 1000 to 5000 starting 10 July.

While the subcommittee endorsed the government’s plans, there remains potential for friction. After the meeting, Dr. Shigeru Omi, the group’s chairman, stressed the need to forge a consensus on the extent the government and society are willing to tolerate the risk of new infections. He also warned against treating infection control as crisis management and argued against a piecemeal, reactive response to new cases. The panel’s medical experts therefore urged the government to expand its ability to conduct and process tests quickly so to give local and national medical authorities better data for anticipating new clusters and implementing an effective response.

In the immediate term, however, the biggest challenge for the Abe government is friction with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. Immediately after winning a second term by an enormous margin, thanks in part to the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) decision not to field a candidate against her, Koike is already at odds with senior national government officials over how aggressively to respond to the rising case load in Tokyo. As of 7 July, the capital reported more than 100 new cases per day for six consecutive days. The rising caseload has prompted Koike to discourage non-essential travel to other prefectures and greater vigilance on the part of Tokyoites. Meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday, Koike stressed that preventing a second wave of Covid-19 infections was the highest priority and appealed to Abe to deploy national resources to help Tokyo. However, both Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Covid-19 czar Yasutoshi Nishimura countered her request. On Tuesday, Nishimura explicitly stated that the Abe administration does not concur with Koike’s request, arguing that only individuals exhibiting symptoms or otherwise not feeling well to avoid travel.

For now, the public appears to favor the government’s efforts to continue reopening despite the growing caseload. However, Koike, fortified by a new electoral mandate, will likely remain a thorn in the Abe government’s side. She already has a reputation as a hardliner on infection control – her calls for a state of emergency in April helped force Abe’s hand – and as the popular governor of Japan’s most populous prefecture she will have an outsized voice in public debates over the Abe government’s response. The situation will remain stalemated as long as the caseload remains elevated but has not overburdened the medical system, but if the number of cases in Tokyo and other prefectures continues to rise, Koike’s advocacy for a more aggressive response risks making Abe’s leadership look ineffectual again, which would complicate his hopes for a comeback.

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