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Questions linger over '2nd wave' of coronavirus infections in Japan

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a news conference at the prime minister's office on May 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- A news conference by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 4 has left questions lingering over how Japan handled a "second wave" of novel coronavirus infections that arrived in the country from Europe and the United States.

Abe stressed that the "first wave" of coronavirus infections from China had been contained, and that infections from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in the port of Yokohama had come to an end. His comments were an apparent rebuttal to criticism that Japan had been slow to introduce border control measures in January and February following the outbreak.

"The efforts and the measures we've taken up to this point have without doubt produced results," Abe said during his 23-minute address. With Japan's state of emergency -- based on a special measures law against new types of influenza and other infectious diseases -- being extended, Abe listed Japan's border control measures for visitors from China and its response to infections aboard the Diamond Princess as some of those "results."

The government was harshly criticized over its "late decision" to introduce border controls for people arriving from China. The delay was apparently the result of consideration for the economic benefits provided by Chinese tourists -- numbering nearly 10 million per year -- and a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping planned for April. Criticism came even from within the ranks of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with former secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba stating, "Entry should have been stopped much earlier." The government was also criticized for the "delay" in letting passengers disembark from the Diamond Princess, on which about 700 passengers and crew members were infected.

Amid such circumstances, analysis by the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) released in late April gave the government "scientific grounds" to rebut such criticism. Analysis of the genome sequence of the virus extracted from people in Japan led the institute to conclude that the initial Chinese route of infections (the first wave) had been contained. Using the key words China, Hubei province and Wuhan, it stressed that it had been able to quickly detect infected people and those who had been in close contact with them.

It further pointed out that cases of the virus stemming from those on the Diamond Princess were thought to have been contained. In his news conference on May 4, Abe used the NIID analysis to underscore the government's success in battling the virus, saying, "It is presumed that it was contained through thorough cluster countermeasures."

However, the NIID report also referred to a "second wave" of infections from Europe and the United States, which Abe did not include in his comments. The report said, "Until self-imposed restrictions on travel began in mid-March, the entry of a second wave was allowed through people returning from overseas, and the virus was transmitted to all areas of the country within the space of a few weeks." In other words, the government was slow to introduce border control measures, such as travel restrictions and quarantine measures when those returning or coming from Europe and the United States entered the country. Because of this, a second wave of infections spread within the country. The NIID gave insufficient understanding of restrictions on movements from mid-March as a reason for the spread of infections.

It was on March 19 that the Japanese government effectively began refusing entry to people arriving from certain parts of Europe including Italy and Switzerland. By that time, the European Union, Canada, Russia and other areas had already decided to implement full bans on entry for people from other countries or regions.

On March 27, Japan added 21 countries in Europe as well as Iran to its entry ban list. The list was extended to cover regions including the United States, China, and South Korea on April 3, four days before Japan declared a state of emergency.

In his May 4 news conference, Abe touched on the "second wave" by stating, "The increase in infections has peaked, and we are heading toward an end of them." But he did not touch on what had led to an infections increase in the second wave.

The period between mid- and late March, when the government is said to have been slow to respond to the situation, coincided with the period when talk was flying over the postponement or possible cancellation of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. At the time, the government assumed that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had the final say. While focusing on the state of infections in Europe, where the IOC is based, there were fears that Japan's ability to host the games would be called into question. In the future, the prime minister will be pressed to explain the background to Japan's response to the second wave of infections.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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