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7 Japan airports' anti-coronavirus measures inadequate in case of disasters: survey

Kansai International Airport is seen conducting a training session in case people at the airport are infected with the novel coronavirus if the facility becomes isolated due to a typhoon, on July 7, 2020. (Mainichi/Satoshi Hishida)

IZUMISANO, Osaka -- Seven airports in Japan at risk of being isolated due to disasters including Kansai International Airport, which was left virtually inaccessible after it was flooded by Typhoon Jebi two years ago on Sept. 4, said they do not have on-site doctors around the clock as part of coronavirus prevention measures, according to a Mainichi Shimbun survey.

    Even airports with quarantine equipment have limited testing to just passengers entering Japan. If these facilities become isolated with coronavirus patients in the face of a disaster, and cannot be accessed by helicopters and boats, all that can be done is to isolate those infected from others -- which some have pointed out could result in group infections.

    The Mainichi conducted the survey in late-August on seven airports: Kansai International Airport, where around 8,000 people stayed overnight in 2018 after it was isolated due to flooding; Central Japan International Airport, Kobe Airport, Kitakyushu Airport and Nagasaki Airport, which are on the sea; Tokyo International Airport, which built its fourth runway on the sea; and Sendai International Airport, which was flooded due to the tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

    All seven airports said if a person on site develops a fever and other symptoms and is suspected to have the coronavirus during a disaster, they will be isolated in either a conference room, a hotel room or elsewhere inside the airport until the weather improves so they can be transferred to a medical facility outside the airport.

    Although Kansai International, Central Japan International and Tokyo International airports had introduced new devices by Aug. 5 to greatly shorten the time to conduct coronavirus testing at their quarantine stations, testing is limited to just people entering Japan on international flights.

    A Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare official explained, "Quarantine is a protection measure conducted at borders so viruses don't enter Japan. It is defined by the Quarantine Act, and testing passengers on domestic flights and workers at airports is difficult even if they are suspected of infection."

    Though the three airports each have a medical institution on site, there are no doctors on night shift. An official at Kansai International Airport's operating company told the Mainichi, "We would like to consult with quarantine stations or public health centers if there is an emergency."

    Furthermore, the quarantine stations -- currently closed due to the suspension of international flights -- at Sendai International, Kitakushu and Nagasaki airports are not equipped to deal with the novel coronavirus. Kobe Airport does not host international flights or have a quarantine station. These four airports do not have an on-site clinic and there are no doctors at the facilities. The Sendai Municipal Government has demanded the central government "to prepare a coronavirus testing facility at the airport and to advise measures to take during emergencies." The Kitakyushu and Nagasaki municipal governments told the Mainichi they "need to coordinate with local governments and other bodies."

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism on Aug. 14 ordered all 95 airports in Japan to formulate an infectious disease control plan by Sept. 23. Though the plans are to include prevention measures to be taken at ordinary times including wearing masks and installing disinfectant, a ministry official says the guidelines "aren't formulated on the assumption of secondary damage where infections spread during times of disaster."

    Yoshiaki Kawata, a specially appointed professor of crisis management at Kansai University said, "During times of disasters, quarantine stations and airport operators need to work together to deal with issues, without being bound by laws and with flexibility. It's problematic that tests cannot be conducted, and relevant government ministries and agencies should make active efforts to improve the current situation."

    (Japanese original by Yasutoshi Tsurumi, Izumisano Resident Bureau)

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