What went wrong with Japan’s COVID-19 response

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On a global scale, Japan’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is passable. Even without a total lockdown, the country has avoided an explosion of cases and has a relatively low mortality rate. As of April 26, the number of deaths per million people in Japan stood at 2.85 compared to 164.5 in the U.S. and 490 in Spain.

Also read: Coronavirus | Japanese PM Abe leaning towards extending state of emergency

The reasons for Japan’s less virulent brush with the novel coronavirus remain up for debate. Explanatory contenders include a culture of wearing facemasks, elevated standards of hygiene, relatively warm weather, and even the propitiation of plague-fighting Shinto deities. But one factor glaringly missing on this list is political leadership.

The response of the Japanese authorities to COVID-19 has oscillated between hubris and confusion, highlighting a leadership that appears cosseted from the consequences of the policies they are in charge of formulating. A case in point is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For weeks, Mr. Abe downplayed the seriousness of the unfolding pandemic, limiting testing, holding off from declaring a state of emergency, and bungling the handling of the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship docked at Yokohama port where over 700 passengers and crew eventually tested positive for COVID-19.

Also read: Coronavirus | Tech-challenged Japanese struggle to work from home

Through much of March, Mr. Abe insisted that the Tokyo summer Olympic Games were on schedule, leaving many sanguine about the spread of the disease in Japan. When the cherry blossoms bloomed in late March, large flower-appreciation gatherings took place despite some weak pleas for the public to avoid these. Even Akie Abe, the first lady, was photographed attending a blossom party in contravention of the government’s own social distancing advice.

The consequence was a predictable spike in infections, which had the authorities scrambling to respond, as hospitals began to warn that they were in danger of being overwhelmed. Mr. Abe finally declared an emergency on April 7. As businesses were asked to close, schools and nurseries were shut and people self-isolated, an anxious citizenry awaited concrete details of the government’s plan to tackle the crisis.

‘Abenomasks’ for every house

Their bated breath was rewarded with the announcement that two cloth facemasks would be posted to every household in the country. The “Abenomask”, a pun on the Prime Minister’s signature economic policy that is dubbed Abenomics, was widely pilloried as an ineffectual waste of taxpayer’s money. Once the masks began to be delivered, there were further complaints of the products being stained, damaged or contaminated with human hair and dust. A large number had to be recalled. Mr. Abe then addressed the nation via a video meant to persuade the nation about the small pleasures of staying at home. It featured the PM cuddling his dog in his spacious apartment, winding down with a large, presumably warm, beverage and watching TV.

The majority of Japanese live in cramped accommodations and are struggling to cope with balancing childcare with making a living in an uncertain economic environment. At a time when the Governor of Osaka was pleading for raincoat donations because doctors had resorted to wearing trash bags as protective gear, Mr. Abe’s video struck some as a tad tone-deaf. “You look so elegant at a time when many people feel they are being strangled slowly (with the virus). Why don’t you go and see hospitals that have been the battleground?” asked one tweet.

But in a nation governed largely by a cabal of dark suit-wearing older men, Mr. Abe has company in acting clueless. Last week, the Mayor of Osaka, Ichiro Matsui, came in for flak after suggesting that women stay at home and send men to do the grocery shopping instead, since men were more directed and less likely to dawdle in shops. Speaking to reporters, he said women “take a long time as they browse around and hesitate about this and that,” adding, “Men can snap up things they are told (to buy) and go, so I think it’s good that they go shopping…”

Social media was once again less than appreciative. “When I hear remarks like this… I feel the need for people with diverse backgrounds to participate in politics,” read a tweet.

Despite a long window for preparation having been affected by COVID-19 relatively early, Japan remains badly placed to deal with a potential escalation in infections. It has only half as many ICU beds per 1,00,000 people as Spain. Germany has six times more. More is needed from the leadership than sops in the form of masks or feel-good videos about cuddling pets.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo)

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