TOKYO — Japan's leaders believed they had found a way to live with the coronavirus and keep the economy open, relying on widespread mask-wearing and sensible precautions without resorting to mandatory lockdowns.
On Thursday, with the limits of that approach becoming clear as the country’s outbreak spirals out of control, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reluctantly declared a state of emergency in the Tokyo area.
“This global infectious disease has exceeded our imagination, and it’s becoming a severe fight,” Suga said at a news conference. To overcome the situation, he added, “we need to ask people to have a limited lifestyle.”
The measures include asking restaurants and bars to close early, requesting residents to refrain from non-urgent outings, and limiting attendance at sports and other events to 5,000 people, at least until Feb. 7.
But medical experts are expressing concern that the measures will be too little, too late to quickly contain the virus — meaning they will have to remain in place for longer. Adding to the worry, the Olympics are scheduled to open in Tokyo in under 200 days.
Japan’s coronavirus caseload and deaths have been much lower than in the United States or Europe, but a surge in cases since November is threatening to overwhelm health services. The country had just over 6,000 new cases on Wednesday, a record, with the cumulative death toll surpassing 3,600.
The irony is that the Japanese public behaved responsibly early in the pandemic, with mask use widespread and social contact dramatically reduced without the threat of legal penalties. Japanese scientists were also ahead of the curve in identifying and warning against high-risk situations, stressing the need to avoid crowded and poorly ventilated spaces.
A nationwide state of emergency in April and May suppressed infections but didn’t eliminate them, and when the government pivoted to introduce a massive subsidy program to encourage domestic tourism and dining out, the virus roared back.
By November, it was apparent the travel subsidies were helping to spread the virus around the country, but officials resisted calls from medical experts and the general public to end the program — until an abrupt U-turn in late December.
The government’s efforts to avoid total lockdown may have lessened the short-term suffering but prolonged the pain. Many here look at Japan’s neighbors, including Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, and see governments that have shown more determination to bring the virus under control and have benefited economically and with lower death tolls.
Suga, who took office in September, has suffered a plunge in his popularity as he appeared to dither in the face of an unfolding crisis.
“The government’s responses have been slow and tepid,” the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in an editorial this week. “There is no disputing the fact that the ‘wait and see and hope for the best’ approach adopted by both the central and local governments has helped to create the current dismal situation.”
But wearing masks outdoors, while removing them in packed bars and restaurants, was never going to work. Suga now admits that dining out has become a major source of virus transmission.
“People behaved very well, and they did whatever they could during the first and second waves to cope with the situation,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London. “But now, because of this lack of strategy and leadership — and confusing messages — I think people are a bit confused.”
Under the new rules, restaurants in the greater Tokyo area, the epicenter of the latest virus outbreak, have been asked to close at 8 p.m. and stop serving alcohol at 7 p.m. Businesses are again being asked to encourage working from home, with the government hoping to reduce the number of employees in offices by 70 percent.
To increase compliance, Suga says the government aims to revise legislation that will combine compensation for businesses that comply with virus guidelines with financial penalties for those that do not.
“The worst thing is to pretend to be doing something by declaring a watered-down emergency,” Kentaro Iwata, an infectious-disease expert at Kobe University, tweeted this week.
Professional sports resumed in front of large crowds last year, albeit with venues at half capacity and spectators asked to wear masks and refrain from shouting and cheering. On Monday, more than 24,000 people attended the end-of-season game in Japan’s soccer league in the new National Stadium, the venue for the Opening Ceremony for the Summer Olympics in July.