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Editorial: New virus response needed to prevent collapse of Japan's health care system

The coronavirus continues to spread across Japan, and nearly 500 patients are severely ill. The daily number of deaths recently set a new record. The country's health care system is under strain, and there is an urgent need to implement measures to prevent its collapse.

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, over 25% of hospital beds designated for COVID-19 patients were occupied in 15 prefectures by the end of November. The figure indicates that these areas are in "stage 3" or higher on the 5-stage alert level -- suggesting that infections are spiking and the burden on the health care system is increasing.

    Medical institutions are being pushed to their limits. While 57% of hospital beds in Osaka Prefecture were being used by COVID-19 patients as of Dec. 1, if the calculation was limited to the number of beds readily available for coronavirus patients, the figure goes up to 66%, as other patients were also hospitalized.

    But even if there are more hospital beds available, places like Tokyo are failing to secure enough health care staff. Attending to COVID-19 patients is starting to have an effect on the treatment of people who need surgery for other reasons.

    To ease the strain on medical institutions, Japan must make the transition to a downward trend in the number of coronavirus cases.

    The Japanese government's expert advisory subcommittee suggested that people refrain from traveling to and from areas with surging COVID-19 cases as much as possible, but the response from the Japanese government doesn't seem to share the same sense of crisis.

    The national and Tokyo governments have agreed to ask elderly people and those with chronic diseases to refrain from using the "Go To Travel" subsidy campaign for trips departing from or arriving in Tokyo.

    Although it has been explained that the decision comes as such people have a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the infection, the measure is lukewarm compared to what is being done in the cities of Sapporo and Osaka. Trips to the two cities have been excluded from the program's discounts, while residents in these areas are being asked to refrain from using the program. The decision by the central and Tokyo governments could send a wrong message to the public that authorities are recommending people other than the elderly to travel.

    The national government has also asked prefectural governors to stop issuing premium meal tickets under the "Go To Eat" program that aims to support eateries, while at the same time it is apparently considering extending the campaign period. This kind of incoherent response will only confuse the public.

    Governors of Tokyo and other areas facing a spike in infections are asking restaurants to shorten their business hours. But there are eateries that continue to operate until late at night due to financial difficulties, and the effect of such requests remains unknown.

    Subcommittee head Shigeru Omi said, "We have passed the point where we can rely purely on the efforts of individuals."

    The Japanese government needs to take consistent measures to control the rapid spread of infections. It must change its approach that forces individuals and local governments to take responsibility.

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