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Japan's move to keep passengers, crew on coronavirus-hit cruise ship questioned

The Diamond Princess cruise ship and buses waiting to transport passengers from the vessel are seen at the port in Yokohama's Tsurumi Ward, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Doubts have been raised about the Japanese government's decision to keep the thousands of passengers and crew quarantined on the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama Bay, south of Tokyo.

More than 600 cases had been confirmed on the ship as of Feb. 19. According to figures close to the government, it is the world's first mass outbreak of a new infectious disease on a vessel with more than 3,000 people aboard. With the world's eyes on how Japan would handle the situation, Japan's government has been forced to cope with a crisis well beyond the scope of any of its preconceived scenarios.

Government insiders are increasingly worried that the rising number of infections could adversely affect the approval rating for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, already on a downward trend. Responding to pointed questions on the government's response to the spread of the virus on the Diamond Princess, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated that the administration "has responded to the situation while giving maximum consideration to efforts to ensure the health of the passengers and crewmembers."

The government officially recognized that there was a health problem on the ship on Feb. 2, when the Chinese government notified Tokyo via the World Health Organization (WHO) that a man who had disembarked in Hong Kong had tested positive for the virus. Japan could then have refused to allow the Diamond Princess to enter port. However, as there were many Japanese passengers on board and it had yet to be seen if anyone else had been infected, the government allowed the ship to anchor in Yokohama, where it originally departed from.

The vessel was quarantined upon its arrival in Yokohama Port, but even then, the government did not evince any great sense of crisis. At a press conference on Feb. 3, Suga said only, "We'll respond to the situation in an appropriate manner through the quarantine and other measures."

At that point, the government had intended to confirm whether any of the others on board had come into close contact with the man who had disembarked in Hong Kong, test those who weren't feeling well, and allow passengers in good health to disembark at Yokohama.

"Everything's all right because we're dealing with the situation properly," said a senior prime minister's office official on Feb. 3.

However, the official's facial expression turned grave two days later, after it was confirmed that 10 out of 31 people who had undergone checks for the virus had tested positive. After deeming it dangerous to allow anyone to get off the ship, the government ordered them to stay in their cabins.

At the time, Tokyo was preoccupied with evacuating Japanese nationals from China's Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak started.

"Just the return of 100-odd people per chartered flight created chaos. There's no facility that can accommodate 30 times as many people," the PM's office official recalled, referring to the number of people on the Diamond Princess. The official added that "we had no choice" but to keep them all confined to the cruise ship.

The number of people infected increased every time an inspection was conducted. Under the circumstances, there were growing calls for everyone aboard to be tested before being allowed to leave the boat. Initially, Japan could check about 300 people a day for the virus. Since authorities needed to examine Japanese evacuees from Hubei, the official said, "It's easy to say that 'everyone' should be tested, but what if suspected cases surfaced in other areas?"

On Feb. 6, the MS Westerdam, another cruise ship carrying people suspected of having been infected, was approaching Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. The Cabinet promptly decided to ban anyone aboard from landing. The measure was taken under paragraph xiv of Article 5-1 of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which stipulates that "a person whom the Minister of Justice has reasonable grounds to believe is likely to commit an act which could be detrimental to the interests or public security of Japan" could be denied permission to step on the Japanese soil.

The WHO lambasted the decision, but a source close to the government dismissed the criticism, saying, "We're preoccupied with responding to the Diamond Princess. They (WHO) can easily say such things because they don't have the responsibility (to deal with the Westerdam)."

Meanwhile, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Japan rises, groundless rumors that the country is dangerous to be in have begun to spread. At Tokyo's urging, the WHO has separated the infection figures for Japan and the Diamond Princess. However, it was inevitable that some foreign media outlets would criticize the Japanese government over its response to the spread of the disease.

The United States, which had initially said it would entrust its citizens on the ship to the Japanese government, evacuated 328 American passengers on chartered flights out of Tokyo's Haneda Airport on the morning of Feb. 17. The Self-Defense Forces provided buses to transport them to the airport. Prime Minister Abe told a government meeting at his office on the evening of Feb. 16, "The United States expressed gratitude for Japan's response."

Some within the government have expressed displeasure at the criticism of its reaction to the Diamond Princess infections. "Could other countries have dealt with the situation any better?" a senior prime minister's office figure said. However, some ruling coalition insiders have begun to call the government's response into question.

"I have the impression that the Japanese public as a whole doesn't appreciate how the government has dealt with this," said Shunichi Suzuki, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council.

Tokai University professor and marine policy expert Yoshihiko Yamada pointed out, "The company operating the vessel and its captain are primarily responsible for the prevention of infections. The infections spread because they failed to change the way the vessel was managed even after learning of the Hong Kong man's infection."

At the same time, he said there were problems as to how the Japanese government quarantined the ship, saying, "First of all, virus checks should've been conducted on crewmembers who are highly likely to have had contact with those infected, but priority was given to passengers. Elderly passengers who are prone to infections and those with pre-existing illnesses should've been isolated promptly."

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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