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Editorial: PM Abe's leadership lacking when Japan needs all-out efforts on COVID-19

As infections of the coronavirus resurge in Japan, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have become lost without being able to propose effective countermeasures due to its higher priority on boosting socio-economic activities. The country's political and administrative systems need to be rebuilt after reviewing their problematic aspects.

    The Abe administration has been heretofore viewed as a government with advantages in crisis management, because its political maneuvers centered on the power concentrated in the prime minister's office allow quick and bold decision-making.

    When it came to coronavirus countermeasures, however, politics and the executive branch of the government have failed to function properly, as admitted by the prime minister himself when he said there were delays in measures such as the cash handouts and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to detect the virus in humans.

    The most symbolic case that underscored the government's dysfunction was the distribution of cloth face masks.

    In early April, Prime Minister Abe made an abrupt announcement that a pair of cloth masks will be distributed to each of the approximately 50 million households in the country. It was apparently suggested by Abe's aide and secretary knowns as "the prime minister's office bureaucrat."

    The announcement came at a time when concerns were raised over the collapse of Japan's medical system, and it was obviously a mistake on the prime minister's part in making policy priorities.

    The fact that numerous defects were later found in the government-funded masks and that its plan to deliver cloth masks to care facilities across-the-board had to be canceled after a backlash, among other fiascos, rubbed salt in its wounds.

    Meanwhile, the people's distrust in politics and their concerns are building up after being pushed around many times by the government's ill-assorted responses.

    A major cause of this confusion lies in the fact that the anti-coronavirus policies are not based on the views of central government organs including the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare, or those of local government bodies or private sectors. They tend to rely on ideas from some bureaucrats, resulting in the adoption of measures that do not reflect the real state of affairs.

    Furthermore, ruling parties that are supposed to represent the voices of every corner of the country are slow to act. This is because they have become too comfortable with Abe's predominance in the coalition, deriving from a long-running government.

    Some bureaucrats who remain at a certain distance from the prime minister's office say that there is this air in which it's hard to voice opinions unwelcomed by his office.

    The stance of experts is also vague. They are dissatisfied as their roles and responsibilities remain unclear. As this pandemic is caused by an unforeseen virus, it's only natural that there are differing opinions. And Prime Minister Abe is the only person who can unite them.

    The measures proposed by some opposition parties often proved to be speedier and more spot-on, such as the 100,000-yen cash handouts to every resident and rent relief program. However, the government did not directly adopt these proposals. The ruling coalition's continuous belittlement of Diet deliberations and its treatment of the opposition camp as some kind of suborganization have come back to hinder its ability to accept diverse viewpoints.

    The relationship between the central and local governments should also be reconsidered. Regarding school closures as a response to epidemics, for example, a review report compiled by the central government a year after the 2009 influenza epidemic provided a clue. It proposed that, when it comes to requesting that schools and other facilities temporarily close down, local bodies should decide on how such requests are issued based on the state of infections in their area after the national government presents a rough indication.

    In response to the coronavirus outbreak, however, Prime Minister Abe abruptly requested all schools to cancel classes. Schools and working parents were thrown into confusion. At the time of his request for nationwide school closures, a state of emergency had not been issued, meaning that there was no legal ground supporting his action. What Abe should have done instead is to present a standard that works as a guideline, urge prefectural governments to make final decisions and support them.

    Similarly, implementing the controversial "Go To" travel campaign across the country simultaneously to support the domestic tourism industry at the direction of the central government is unrealistic because the state of affairs regarding infections and medical systems differs greatly in each region.

    In the greater Tokyo area in eastern Japan and the Kinki region in western Japan which includes major cities such as Osaka, it's common for residents to cross prefectural borders to commute to work or school. Their living and economic regions need to be viewed as a whole. Therefore, if implemented uncoordinatedly in each area, requests to remain indoors or temporarily close down businesses will not be effective. Cooperation among different municipalities in a wider region is essential. And it's supposed to be the central government's key role to help build systems that allow them to work together.

    Based on the lessons learned up to this point, it's time that the special measures law on the new types of influenza and other infectious diseases as well as the infectious diseases control law get reviewed and necessary revisions are made. The inclusion of measures, equivalent to compensating businesses when they choose to close, needs to be considered when revising the special measures law.

    PCR testing capacity also remains insufficient. A system is required that allows testing at regular hospitals, clinics and university hospitals for those who are deemed necessary to get checked, without medical institutions having to be commissioned by administrative bodies by eradicating a vertically divided administrative structure in the medical field. The cost of testing should also be covered by public funds.

    The prime minister should be the one showing leadership to make political and administrative systems function, but we have not seen that. Japan's crisis management governance must be restructured to establish a framework where we get all hands on deck to counter the pandemic.

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