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Editorial: Long-term support needed as Japan's state of emergency continues

The state of emergency declared in Japan over the spread of the novel coronavirus has been extended until the end of May.

    There had been no explosive increase in the number of cases, and it was initially thought that the number of new infections across the country had already peaked. But the number of new cases has not sufficiently declined. Amid concerns that a further increase in infections could cause Japan's medical system to collapse, the state of emergency was extended.

    The request for people to refrain from going out and for nonessential businesses to suspend operations is entering its second month. The extension of the state of emergency is likely to deal a further economic blow to these businesses. "Quarantine fatigue" from self-imposed restrictions will also increase. The government and local bodies need to give fine-tuned answers as to how people can make it through the prolonged state of emergency.

    Relaxing restrictions in areas other than Tokyo and 12 other prefectures with the highest numbers of novel coronavirus infections is one option. Presumably, such a decision would enable social and economic activities to continue while curbing the virus' spread.

    The ultimate aim of the declaration of a state of emergency is to prevent a collapse of Japan's medical system. But we can hardly say that sufficient medical preparations have been made over the past month.

    -- Ongoing fears of a collapse

    Progress has been made in securing hotels and other facilities that can accommodate patients who have only light symptoms of COVID-19, but transfers of these patients from medical facilities have only just begun. There is an urgent need to divide up hospitals by role and function so that patients with severe symptoms of the disease can be admitted and get appropriate treatment. We also hope officials will quickly set up a system to efficiently gather information from medical institutions.

    The number of PCR tests to detect coronavirus infections has not increased as hoped. A system should be established so that those who need tests can quickly receive them. Public health centers, meanwhile, must not skimp on boosting support measures, such as securing workers and utilizing information technology.

    Not enough surgical masks, protective clothing and face shields have reached those who need them. The government should support increased production of this equipment, and establish a method of distributing them to medical institutions at once. Internal transmission risks would rise if hospital workers were forced to share or reuse equipment, inflicting an excessive burden on medical practitioners.

    The key to lowering the number of infected people is the thorough implementation of ongoing self-imposed restrictions on going out and business suspension requests. The government has implemented a system to pay benefits to medium and small companies that have had no option but to suspend operations or take other action resulting in major profit declines. But this is not sufficient. With the extension of the state of emergency, the government has a responsibility to quickly implement additional measures, such as expanding the scope of those eligible for benefits and increasing the amount.

    Government service counters have been flooded with inquiries about employment adjustment subsidies for companies forced to furlough employees, but payments have been late in coming. Employers have criticized the application process as cumbersome. Cash management has become increasingly tough for these firms, and the government needs to respond to the situation promptly.

    In order to overcome this prolonged period of restrictions, the government needs to inform the public in a considerate manner. Taking the extended state of emergency as an opportunity, Cabinet ministers could hold news conferences daily. Trust will be earned when officials frankly relay the current state of efforts to battle the virus, including information that is inconvenient for the government.

    In a news conference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe depicted May as a month for bringing the virus under control, and a period to prepare for the next step. The public is worried about how long self-imposed restraints will continue with the extended emergency declaration. An "exit strategy" for lifting it is required.

    First the government needs to present the standards for judging that the declaration can be lifted. If it is lifted before infections have been brought under control, then the virus could start spreading again and further hobble society and the economy.

    -- An exit strategy

    As one standard for lifting the declaration, the government cited the medical care system, including the number of new infections and the number of available hospital beds, but it did not provide any definite numbers. The Osaka Prefectural Government is preparing to introduce its own standards, but the central government should first supply the figures.

    Even if the declaration can be lifted, there will remain facilities where the risk of infection is high, such as restaurants with customer service. The question of whether to continue to ask people to refrain from using such establishments warrants consideration.

    The education ministry has indicated that it will reopen long-closed schools in stages. Education boards need to present how they will resume classes, while paying the utmost consideration to infection mitigation.

    When classes can be fully resumed, an important issue is how to recover lost learning time. We call on those in the education sector to commence preparations to sufficiently address this issue now.

    Meanwhile, there have been cases of business operators failing to comply with suspension requests from prefectural governors. It has been suggested that the special measures law in place could be revised to punish offending businesses, but the approach to date has been to keep restrictions on personal rights to a minimum. Hasty legal amendments should be avoided.

    Even if the state of emergency can be lifted, it will be a long time before the pandemic comes to an end. To allow policies to prevent transmissions to stand alongside maintenance of socioeconomic activities, we hope each person will do what they can to minimize the risk of infection and overcome the crisis.

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