Glimmer of hope in Japan with fall in number of Covid-19 cases

TOKYO – Has Japan somehow hit upon a formula of putting a lid on Covid-19 infections while also keeping a large part of its economy alive?

Its most populated areas are now under a state of emergency that is so limited in scope it does not have any enforced curtailment of movement or business shutdowns.

Mr Yuma Tomioka, a 23-year-old student, said: “It feels nothing like a crisis since people are out and about and streets are crowded.”

Despite this, infections have dropped from a peak of 7,882 on Jan 8 to 2,324 on Tuesday (Feb 2). In Tokyo, the tally has fallen from 2,447 on Jan 7 to 556 on Tuesday.

Restaurants and bars in emergency areas bemoan the 8pm curfew, which has effectively deterred alcohol-laden shinnenkai (New Year parties) usually held in early to mid-January, though they can otherwise open in the day.

Whether the plunge in fresh cases is due to natural attrition – other than the shinnenkai, January is typically a lull – or because of the state of emergency is to be seen.

National Institute of Infectious Diseases chief Takaji Wakita said: “Due to year-end dinner parties and homecoming visits, the number of infections skyrocketed regardless of age. While it has decreased since then, we need to see if the trend will continue.”

But what may complicate things are the fast-returning crowds to areas like Shibuya, which was 40 per cent more crowded on Jan 30 than on Jan 9, the first Saturday after the emergency was declared.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday expressed regret that he had to prolong the state of emergency, which was due to expire on Sunday, by one month to March 7. The domestic Go To Travel subsidy programme will stay suspended until the same date.

The declaration will continue to cover 10 out of the 11 prefectures where it is now in effect, including major urban centres like Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka, but will be lifted in suburban Tochigi.

Mr Suga exhorted the public to avoid non-essential outings in the day: “Please do not think that this is other people’s business. Please think of this as your own problem.”

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But given “Covid-19 fatigue”, he faces a problem getting through to people like Mr Tomioka, who is adamant that young people should not be blamed, given that politicians themselves are ignoring the very guidelines they set.

Four Diet members made late-night visits to Ginza hostess clubs last month. Three of them from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had to quit the party, and one from Komeito, a partner in the ruling coalition, resigned as an MP.

Mr Suga on Tuesday asked for the public’s forgiveness for the lapses, while pleading for their endurance as he vowed to lift the emergency before March 7 if the strain on medical institutions eases.

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While the number of new cases has fallen, hospitals remain overburdened and the number of Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday hit a new one-day high of 119.

“The protection of people’s lives and livelihoods is my biggest responsibility as Prime Minister,” Mr Suga said. “But just as important are employment security and business continuity.”

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