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Lack of 'control tower' in Japan's coronavirus response deals blow to Abe administration

Signs for the Cabinet Secretariat and Cabinet Office are seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Takenori Noguchi)

TOKYO -- Japan has lacked a systemic "control tower" while trying to respond to the new coronavirus outbreak as the government office tasked with handling the issue is unfamiliar with emergency infection control.

While the Cabinet Secretariat's office for response operations and crisis management has spearheaded government measures against the new coronavirus, the office mainly specializes in crisis management in times of large-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, serious incidents including hijackings and terrorist bombings, and civilian protection in the event Japan comes under missile attacks. It lacks experience in dealing with infection control.

The result is that many ministries and agencies have scrambled to respond to the new coronavirus outbreak on their own in numerous cases, bringing the lack of a "command center" to the forefront. The sheer confusion has dealt a serious blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, which has heretofore boasted about its "crisis management" ability.

While the Cabinet Secretariat's Coordination Office of Measures on Emerging Infectious Diseases is primarily tasked with infection control, its staff shortages and limited authority forced members to become preoccupied with internal adjustments such as preparations for and proceedings of ministerial meetings regarding the coronavirus response. "They're not functioning at all," fumed one ruling party legislator affiliated with the health and labor sector.

The Cabinet Secretariat's office for response operations and crisis management thus took over the leading role, but it "faced difficulties as the office, which is accustomed to disaster responses, had no experience in infectious disease countermeasures," revealed a senior official of the prime minister's office. The lack of command functions has pushed the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry and other government bodies concerned to individually respond to coronavirus cases.

It has also become common for staff from the Cabinet Office and the prime minister's office to be assigned to back up short-staffed government teams. "An employee tasked with foreign and security policy was assigned to a facility accommodating Japanese nationals who returned to Japan on government-chartered flights from Wuhan in China's Hubei province, among other cases of staff with no knowledge of infectious diseases responding to returnees," an individual connected to the government confided to the Mainichi Shimbun. "As many staff were sent to on-site responses one after another, the prime minister's office was at one point short of personnel playing leadership roles," another individual testified.

The government began reviewing the current system, assigning a newly established office for preparing the launch of the National Security Secretariat's economy team in April to take charge of entry restrictions for foreign nationals from coronavirus-stricken countries. While the Abe administration has taken pride in its crisis management ability in natural disasters, North Korea's missile launches and the hostage crisis in Algeria in 2013, it has been condemned for lagging behind in taking effective measures to prevent the spread of the novel virus in the country. "Our anti-infection measures were not watertight," an official in charge lamented.

Calls for establishing a "control tower" to respond to the coronavirus have been mounting both within the ruling and opposition parties. At a House of Councillors Budget Committee session on March 3, Akira Koike, head of the secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party, said, "The government should drastically strengthen the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) in order to create a system like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)," referring to the U.S. organization tasked with responding to epidemics in a uniform manner.

The government has allocated 6.496 billion yen in the fiscal 2020 draft budget for the NIID, whose staff numbered 348 as of Feb. 1. Koike pointed out that the CDC "is operated with a budget 200 times that of the NIID and has more than 40 times the personnel."

In response, Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Katsunobu Kato stated, "We are painfully aware of the gap when compared with the United States. Although our system is different, we'd like to strive to enhance its personnel, ability and budget."

An official within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said, "We need to have a commanding organization that specializes in infection control, like the CDC."

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki and Naoki Sugi, Political News Department)

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