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August 4, 2020

Asia

JAPAN: Prefectures move to contain surge as Abe government deliberates

BY Tobias Harris

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( 6 mins)
  • Prefectural governments have moved to impose new restrictions as Covid-19 cases have continued to rise across the country.
  • While the Abe government’s medical advisory panel has warned that without action a significant spike that threatens the medical system is possible, the administration is still reluctant to close parts of the economy again.
  • The surge will not only make it difficult for Abe to call a snap election but could further erode his support.

The number of Covid-19 cases has continued to rise inexorably across Japan, increasing pressure on the Abe government to reconsider its plans to reopen the economy. The government now finds itself at odds with prefectural and local officials – who have begun introducing their own measures to contain the outbreak, even without a national state of emergency – and is increasingly divided amongst itself. The upshot is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will find it virtually impossible to call a snap election this fall, increasingly rendering him a lame duck as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) looks ahead to the end of his term in September 2021.

The prefectures respond

Although on Monday, 3 August, the overall number of cases fell below 1,000 for the first time after five days with more than 1,200 new cases – including a new single-day record of 1,580 on 31 July. Other metrics show that the “second wave” includes more cases and is more prevalent than earlier this year. As of 1 August, 21 prefectures had more than 2.5 cases per 10,000 people, a key indicator for health authorities that stricter controls are necessary. The outbreak is now broadly distributed. Okinawa has the most cases per capita – more than 18 per 10,000 – and the metropolitan regions of Osaka, Fukuoka, and Nagoya are not far behind second-place Tokyo.

As a result, prefectural and local governments are introducing their own measures to combat the second wave. On Friday, 31 July, Okinawa became the first to declare a prefectural state of emergency, which mostly entailed a non-binding request by Governor Denny Tamaki for residents to avoid non-essential outings and – in an implicit challenge to the national government – for individuals to avoid travel into and out of the prefecture. It is perhaps not surprising that Okinawa was the first to take this step, as the prefecture reported Sunday that it was recommending that mild patients quarantine at home because it is short of beds at hospitals and hotels serving as centralized quarantine facilities. Gifu and Mie prefectures in central Japan subsequently declared their own emergencies. Meanwhile, Tokyo has requested that, effective from 3 August, establishments that serve alcohol should close by 10pm. Osaka’s prefectural government will request from 6 August that drinking establishments in high-traffic nightlife areas in Osaka city either reduce their hours or suspend operations. The Aichi prefectural government will introduce a similar request for nightlife in Nagoya, effective 5 August. These soft restrictions will likely make little difference in curbing the outbreak, suggesting that more stringent measures could be forthcoming.

The Abe government’s divisions

The Abe government has been relatively sanguine about the surge in new cases, noting that the new cases – being predominantly among the young – do not yet pose a threat to the medical system. The surge has included relatively few severe cases and has not resulted in a significant increase in deaths. However, the government’s own advisory panel has warned that the outbreak may be at a turning point at which the situation could deteriorate without meaningful action by the national government.

At a meeting of the administration’s advisory subcommittee on Friday, 31 July, the panelists sought to identify some steps that could be taken immediately to prevent an “explosive” outbreak that spreads to more vulnerable populations. These recommendations include working with businesses, particularly restaurants and bars, to improve compliance with public health measures; devoting more resources to testing and to supporting public health centers (which are central to Japan’s cluster detection approach); and encouraging greater use of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s contact tracing app. Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister responsible for managing the response to Covid-19, has suggested that the special measures law that empowers the government to declare a state of emergency could be revised to enable mandatory business closure orders with penalties for non-compliance.

But the Abe administration is not necessarily united behind a more aggressive approach at this moment. After Nishimura suggested that older Japanese should consider not traveling during this month’s O-Bon holidays, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated that the tourism industry is on “the brink of death” and suggested that it would still be possible to travel safely. Meanwhile, the Abe administration reportedly leaned on the subcommittee to not include specific benchmarks that would trigger action by the government, which could include another state of emergency declaration.

Abe the caretaker?

The administration’s determination to balance economic recovery and prevention looks increasingly less tenable and, if the outbreak spreads to more vulnerable populations, the political consequences could be substantial. Even before the latest surge, the public broadly perceived Abe’s leadership in response to the pandemic as ineffective; the public would penalize Abe if inaction were to allow the outbreak to spread to a point where the medical system could be overwhelmed and more stringent – and costly – measures would be unavoidable. Abe has been criticized for failing to address the country as the case numbers have risen. Opposition parties, meanwhile, are incensed by the ruling coalition’s rejection of their call for an early start to the autumn extraordinary session of the Diet, which will enable Abe to duck questioning from opposition lawmakers.

In this context, Abe will have little choice but to drop his ambitions to call a general election this autumn, foregoing his best tool for reasserting his authority, particularly over his party, which is increasingly focused on the wide-open race to succeed Abe next year. It is still unlikely that the LDP would move to replace Abe before his term ends without an outright collapse in his support. Instead, Abe could look increasingly like a caretaker, responsible for managing a multi-faceted, ongoing crisis while his party hopes for a fresh start under his successor.

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