The Japanese government's coronavirus advisory subcommittee has suggested that travel be avoided between areas seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases to help battle a "third wave" of coronavirus infections in Japan.
The swift advisory comes on the heels of a request for restaurants to shorten business hours as medical institutions continue to experience an extraordinary strain with the influx of coronavirus patients.
Experts deemed the alert level to be rising in places including Tokyo and Nagoya, and are urging people in these areas to take thorough preventive measures for the coming three weeks, such as teleworking and refraining from meetings involving meals and alcohol.
Is the national government taking this sense of crisis to heart?
In response to the subcommittee's recommendation, the government decided last week to partially suspend its "Go To" subsidy campaign. Travelers to the cities of Osaka and Sapporo will be excluded from the program's discounts until Dec. 15. For the subsidy program for eating out, meanwhile, the central government has asked prefectures to temporarily suspend the issuance of meal tickets.
But these measures are not enough. By itself, the act of traveling increases one's chances of getting and spreading the virus. The subsidies should be halted for not just trips to areas seeing a rapid increase of coronavirus cases, but also for travelers departing from those areas.
For some time, the subcommittee has been advocating that it is essential to exclude areas experiencing a surge of infections from the travel program entirely to prevent a collapse of Japan's medical system. The government however, did not even have procedures to exempt certain areas from the subsidy campaign. For this reason, the differences between the roles of the state and local governments have increasingly become blurred, and both sides are trying to impose the decision to exclude certain areas from the program onto each other, thus delaying the outbreak response.
This is partly why the government is still undecided about how to deal with the situation in Tokyo. Meanwhile, the metropolitan government has already asked eateries and other stores to shorten their operating hours, and it cannot be denied that the central and Tokyo governments lack consistency in their responses. Instead, the national and local governments should be working together to organize a system that enables a quick response to the pandemic.
The central government's stance of downplaying the risks of its travel campaign is problematic in the first place.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said that only around 180 of the approximately 40 million people who have used the travel program were confirmed infected, and has repeatedly stated, "There is no evidence to say it (the campaign) is the major source of the spread of infections."
However, it remains a fact that asymptomatic patients could be spreading the virus, and analysis regarding this point is lacking. Suga's message may mislead people to let their guard down.
If the prime minister's stubborn commitment to the program's success is dissuading discussions on policy change, then it is a major problem. Now is the time to prioritize moves to curb the spread of the virus and hit the brakes on these stimulus measures.