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Japan PM Abe declares nationwide state of emergency amid virus spread

Preparations are seen being carried out by Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel, right, at a hotel in Saitama Prefecture reserved for accommodating coronavirus patients with mild or no symptoms, on April 15, 2020. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded on Thursday the state of emergency beyond Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures to the entire nation in an attempt to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading further and straining the health care system.

With the declaration now covering all 47 prefectures in the country of around 126 million people, Abe said the government will provide cash handouts of 100,000 yen ($930) to all citizens. He also approved a rare reworking of a state budget days before its planned submission to parliament.

The nationwide state of emergency will not lead to hard lockdowns but is certain to deal a debilitating blow to Japan's economy, already on the brink of recession following a consumption tax hike last year. Some governors had asked the central government to include their prefectures amid fears of growing infections.

"I decided to put all prefectures under the state of emergency to curb infections in respective areas and especially to keep the movement of people to a minimum heading into the Golden Week holidays," Abe told a meeting of a government task force on the coronavirus response.

"To end the emergency situation by May 6, it's imperative for people to reduce contact with others by at least 70 percent and up to 80 percent," he said.

Many Japanese go to their hometowns and take trips during the Golden Week holidays that typically run from late April to early May. This year's holiday period will end on May 6.

Abe expressed concern that people moving freely across prefectures would spread coronavirus infections, with over 10,000 cases reported in Japan including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined in February near Tokyo.

"I will ask the ruling parties to consider giving 100,000 yen each to all people affected by the emergency declaration as they will be asked to refrain from outings and other activities will be restricted," the prime minister said.

The announcement came a week after Abe, who had faced criticism for doing too little too late, declared a monthlong state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures, affecting roughly 45 percent of the country's population.

Japan's economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told an advisory panel that gave the go-ahead for the addition of the 40 remaining prefectures that it was an "urgent" issue.

"The cumulative number of cases has topped 100 in Hokkaido, Ibaraki, Ishikawa, Gifu, Aichi and Kyoto (prefectures)," Nishimura said.

Despite Abe's calls for curbing person-to-person interactions and more teleworking to reduce commuters, recent data show crowds have decreased but meeting the targets set by the government may be difficult.

The emergency declaration, based on a revised law enacted last month, gives prefectural governors the power to take bolder preventive steps and allows them to call for school and business closures. There are no legal penalties for noncompliance.

Once the prime minister makes a declaration based on the advisory panel's assessment, each prefectural governor gains the authority to expropriate private land and buildings to provide medical care.

They can also requisition medical supplies and food from companies that refuse to sell them and punish those that hoard or do not comply.

The governors of Kyoto and Aichi had asked the government to declare a state of emergency for their prefectures.

Aichi is among seven prefectures that have already declared their own emergencies to underscore their heightened sense of crisis. Hokkaido, which became the first prefecture to declare its own state of emergency in February, is struggling to curb infections even now.

Stay-at-home requests by local authorities and business suspensions are dealing an additional blow to the world's third-largest economy, sparking calls for state compensation for lost revenue.

The government has put together a record 108 trillion yen economic package that included a scheme to give 300,000 yen to households whose income is deemed to have fallen sharply due to the virus outbreak.

In acquiescing to coalition partner Komeito over the cash handout to all citizens, Abe has instructed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to consider reworking the extra budget for fiscal 2020, with an eye to dropping the more limited plan.

The global coronavirus crisis has raised calls for economic stimulus, but Japan is cautious about taking on new debt to finance bold spending measures as the country's fiscal health is the worst among developed nations with its debt twice the size of its economy.

In the lead-up up to Thursday's sudden shift in policy, critics questioned whether the government's plan to deliver two cloth masks to all households by mail, costing about 46.6 billion yen, would be effective in containing the spread of the virus.

The program is now widely known as "Abenomask," a play on words first went around social media as his economic policy mix has been dubbed "Abenomics."

A video clip showing a relaxed Abe on a sofa with his dog also hit the wrong note despite its intended goal to stress the importance of staying home to reduce transmission risks.

Since the virus spread from China, the government has been placing priority on tracking and tackling clusters, or groups of infections.

But a growing number of cases with unknown transmission routes have raised the alarm among government officials and infectious disease experts wary of an explosive surge that would overwhelm hospitals.

A health ministry team tasked with tracking such clusters has estimated that around 850,000 fall seriously sick with COVID-19 and about 420,000 people could die in Japan if steps are not taken by the time the outbreak ends.

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