Combating COVID-19: Challenges before Suga
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

As the cases of coronavirus surge in Japan, particularly in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency for a month as a robust measure to fight the virus infections. Coming into effect from 7 February, the government asked people to stay at home and desist from going out unless there is any compelling reason. The government’s decision was finalized following its Covid-19 response task force after an advisory panel of experts on infectious diseases and public health as well as economic and legal matters approved the move.

As per the measures,1 restaurants and bars have been asked to stop serving alcohol by 7 PM and close by 8 PM and thus shortening the operating hours. It needs to be remembered that Tokyo which was to host the Olympics in summer last year but postponed till summer this year causing enormous economic loss. Therefore, not to taking any chances this time, the Suga government has advised the people residing in Tokyo and the adjacent prefectures Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama to refrain from nonessential trips outside their homes, especially after 8 PM.

Suga was compelled to take this measure when the virus cases topped 7,500 nationwide amid concerns that hospitals would not be able to cope with this challenge. Companies were encouraged to ask employees to work from home or stagger their shifts. However, the measures have somewhat been relaxed this time than during the previous emergency declaration by the Abe administration last Spring.

Interestingly, Japanese law does not allow the administration to impose punishment on violators and therefore, is different than hard lockdowns in other parts of the world, including in India. The beauty in the Japanese society is that when the government makes an appeal either through statements or television with a request to people to abide by the government decision, people generally obey and follow government instructions. University entry exams would not be affected this time. In the earlier emergency declaration last year, many businesses and schools were closed but not this time. Declaration of emergency by the Central government empowers Governors of Prefectures in affected regions to call for restrictions on movement and commerce but there is no enforcement mechanism.

The government also announced financial support for dining and drinking establishments that cooperate with its request to shorten business hours with an amount ranging from 40,000 to 60,000 yen per day and “name and shame” those who do not.

Effect on Olympics

It may be recalled that after prolonged struggle the Abe government had secured to host the next Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo in July 2020 and had invested enormous amount of money in preparing for new infrastructure and rebuilding the existing ones as the country’s international image was involved. The event had to be postponed when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, until July 2021. Though the event is just six months away and no visible sign of early end of the pandemic despite likely availability of vaccine there still remains a big question mark on the event being held.

A confident Suga however, is committed to hold the games in a “safe and secure” manner, emboldened by the availability of vaccines soon. Since an assessment can be made once the situation improves from Stage 4 to Stage 3 based on indicators on improvement data, it would be premature to jump to any conclusion quickly. This is because Tokyo, the venue for the Olympics, and neighbouring three prefectures – Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama – have seen record infections, which is why emergency had to be declared. In fact, the situation worsened after the New Year holidays. Situation in the Kansai areas is no better. Both Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura and Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura are ready to put into effect the emergency measures if the situation deteriorates in these two prefectures.

Much howsoever Suga might be confident to host the Olympics to demonstrate “proof of mankind’s victory over the virus”,2 controlling the virus is not something within his control. We have seen how difficult has been the experience of the Indian cricketers currently in Australia for the Gavaskar-Border Trophy series, to comply with the host country’s regulations to stem the spread of the virus. It would be unimaginable the dimension of the restrictions that the athletes from more than 100 countries numbering thousands shall face before taking part in the events. There shall be many more supporting staff as well. If the situation does not improve within the next two-three months, there would be a public outcry for either further postponing or outright cancellation of the event.

There are calls from certain quarters that the emergency is extended for a minimum of two months with a view that the situation would have been brought under control when the Olympic torch relay starts on 25 March. Only optimists would hold such a view. The truism is that no one has any answer what the future of the Tokyo Olympics would be at the time of writing this. As planned the event is scheduled to start on 25 July and the organisers are upbeat about it.3 The organisers hope that public mood would change from demand to extend or cancel the event to endorsement once the vaccination starts towards the end of January 2021 as planned. However, if the ‘elephant in the room’ (surge in virus) continues to stay till closer to the Games, such high hopes have to be shelved.

Though scientists are busy working out the vaccine and hope that it would be ready by later in January, the Suga government visualises that the first doze can be given only by late February. Moreover, even when the vaccine becomes available, the government needs to come out with a plan to prioritise the segment of population which becomes the beneficiary first. If the athletes are given priority to save the Games, there could be public outcry as the public would expect health workers and the elderly be given priority. The challenge for the Suga government would be huge as the country has the largest elderly population in the world, including more than 80,000 centenarians, whose health care cannot be overlooked and bypassed just to save the Games.

The financial burden on the government would also be huge. Estimated to be one of the most expensive Summer Games in history with a budget of $15.8 billion unveiled in December 2020, there could be requirement for an extra close to $3 billion. With a sluggish economy, how the Suga government would handle the country’s finances and adopts measures to stimulate demand as well as boost exports remains to be seen. There is no blueprint as of now. There could not be any short-cut to economic recovery from the effects of the pandemic.4 It would be a long haul.

Impact on Medical System

The surge in the number of new coronavirus infections has already put the medical system in Tokyo into a state of crisis as 88 per cent of hospital beds for infected people are already filled and the country’s medical system is approaching collapse.5 The capacity of the hospitals is getting saturated and many infected persons are not able to avail timely medical treatment. The high number of elderly population could put additional stress on the country’s health care system. These are new challenges for the Suga government.

Dealing with Businesses

While the government faces constraints in imposing emergency measures on the people because of legal limitations, it is empowered to deal with business establishments and could impose 500,000 yen ($4,855) for those violating shutdown orders.6 Under the law, the Governors are empowered to issue legally binding orders to businesses to suspend operations, rather than request to temporarily close. In order to strengthen the government’s hands legally, the government is mulling over the idea of enacting amendment to the Act on Special Measures for Pandemic Influenza and New Infectious Diseases sometime soon. Under the new amendment, if and when enacted, shall have a provision for the national government to provide financial assistance to prefectural governments to pay “cooperation money” to businesses that shut their shops temporarily. However, the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party are not on the same page with the government thinking about imposing penalties on violators. That is another challenge for Suga.

Future

While the futures of the coronavirus pandemic and the Olympics remain uncertain, Prime Minister Suga does not have much time at his disposal as the term of his government ends in October when a general election shall be due. Unlike his predecessor Abe who used the hike in consumption tax card when he called for a snap election in 2017, Suga will be having no selling argument that could be compelling to the people for another mandate. Critics have started to ask the question if Suga can afford to be a “gambler” or a pure strategic matured politician who can play his cards safe. Having been preferred over LDP General Secretary Toshihiro Nikai to succeed Abe as Japan’s Prime Minister, Suga faces huge challenge to redeem the reputation and leave his legacy as a successful Prime Minister who left his footprint in Japan’s politics. In the meantime, Suga’s popularity rating has plummeted because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and there could be doubt if Suga can remain as the “face” of the party. Japanese politics seems to traverse through difficult terrain in the coming months. The Japanese voters shall punish if their perception remains strong that the leaders failed to deliver. In view of the prevailing situation, the earlier speculation of Suga calling for a snap election is extremely unlikely.

Endnotes
  1. “Japan PM Suga declares state of emergency in Tokyo area as coronavirus surges”, Mainichi Daily News, 7 January 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210107/p2g/00m/0na/109000c
  2. “What will Tokyo’s second state of emergency mean?”, The Japan Times, 7 January 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/01/07/national/coronavirus-emergency-details/
  3. Andrew McKirdy, “Tokyo Olympics ‘safe and secure’ despite virus emergency: Organisers”, 8 February 2021, https://news.yahoo.com/tokyo-olympics-safe-secure-despite-050700381.html
  4. Please see the special issue of Japan Spotlight, January-February 2021 on the issue of Japan’s economic recovery, https://www.jef.or.jp/jspotlight/latestissue/
  5. “Beds for COVID-19 patients 88% full in Tokyo, medical system approaching collapse”, Mainichi Daily News, 7 January 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210107/p2a/00m/0na/018000c
  6. “Businesses in Japan violating shutdown orders could face fines up to $4,800”, Mainichi Daily News, 7 January 2021, https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210107/p2a/00m/0bu/007000c

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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