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Editorial: As Japan's state of emergency ends, we must decide what we can do better

The novel coronavirus state of emergency has been lifted for all of Japan. After earlier canceling the declaration for 42 of the country's 47 prefectures, the decision was made to lift it for Tokyo and the four other remaining jurisdictions as new infection numbers were trending downwards and the medical system had carved out some breathing space.

    The state of emergency lasted some seven weeks, during which people by and large did their part to stay indoors and suspend businesses, drastically reducing person-to-person contact and thus tamping down new infections.

    Now, the greater Tokyo area -- where the pandemic was at its most widespread in Japan -- will begin its social and economic reopening. However, the risk of transmission remains. Reopening must happen in careful stages, while closely monitoring shifts in new case numbers. Metropolitan Tokyo has an especially high ratio of patients with unknown infection routes, and we must not forget how difficult it is to deal with these types of cases.

    Meanwhile, a slew of problem points has emerged in the government's pandemic response. First among them was the belated moves to secure sufficient medical resources. There was not an inch of leeway in hospital bed and ventilator numbers, resulting in serious worries that the medical system would collapse. We would like to commend to the highest degree the efforts of medical practitioners that got Japan through this crisis, along with the public health center workers on the front lines of the coronavirus response.

    At the time of writing, Japan had secured about 18,000 beds for COVID-19 patients, and was expected to be able to boost that to as many as 30,000-plus. If some of these are set aside for people with other health conditions, there needs to be a system in place to provide enough beds for coronavirus patients right away if infections spike. We would like to see local governments and health care facilities making speedy preparations.

    Japan's testing system must also be strengthened further. There have been too many cases in the preceding weeks of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests being delayed or refused even when considered necessary by a doctor.

    By mid-May, Japan's daily PCR testing capacity surpassed 20,000, and it has also become possible to check for infection using antigen tests. Speedy testing of people suspected of having the virus will be very useful for preventing transmissions, especially group infections at medical facilities. The national and local governments should coordinate to best capitalize on the testing methods' particular characteristics.

    Local public health centers have formed the core of the virus response so far, doing everything from test and trace work, consulting with hospitals, and finding beds for COVID-19 patients. The workload very nearly shattered the centers. We cannot allow this to happen again if patient numbers begin to rise once more. The authorities must implement intensive training programs to secure sufficient employee numbers to handle a future case spike.

    To improve track and trace efficiency, the government plans to roll out a smartphone app that will check whether the user has come into contact with an infected person. It is necessary to tweak and craft this app to make it an efficient tool for transmission prevention at the same time as paying proper heed to personal privacy.

    The government's economic support policy moves have also been chaotic. The application system for government cash subsidies for small and medium businesses is exceedingly complicated and time-consuming, and we call for changes to get the payouts rolling quickly.

    Meanwhile, it is reasonable to assume that it will take some time for consumer demand to revive. There will be no sudden recovery, especially for tourism-related businesses and the like. Particularly places like live music venues that were cluster infection hotspots will continue to be subject to business suspension requests, even with the state of emergency at an end. The government should consider support measures for these enterprises where needed.

    More than 10,000 people have either lost their jobs or been furloughed in Japan due to the pandemic. There are worries that the resulting economic hardship will lead to more suicides. Support measures and consultation services must be fully prepared to help these people.

    Furthermore, we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent about the possibility of a second wave of infections. The government has said it will determine whether to issue another emergency declaration based on certain benchmarks, such as the number of days it takes for new coronavirus cases to double. A system to quickly grasp essential pandemic tracking statistics such as new case numbers and the hospital bed occupancy rate is urgently needed. We would suggest that it is also necessary to set clearer criteria for each benchmark for use in deciding on a new state of emergency.

    Asymptomatic carriers can also spread the coronavirus, making it difficult to contain the pandemic. What's more, truly effective treatments or a vaccine appear some ways off.

    The government has incorporated discount coupons for restaurants and vacations in its economic stimulus plans. However, officials should think very carefully about implementing these in such a way that does not increase transmission risks.

    The fight against the virus will likely be a long one. We must use the lessons we've learned in the battle so far to guard against a resurgence in infections. At the same time, we must continue to search for a way to transition to a "new normal" compatible with rich social and economic lives.

    We have come to many new realizations as the pandemic and our response to it has upended what we had thought of as common sense. Companies seem to have really come to grips with the ideas of teleworking and staggered work times. Big cities have been sharply reminded of their vulnerability to infectious diseases. We hope that this will spur a deep re-evaluation of how we run our societies and economies in the mid- to long term.

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