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Editorial: Discussion needed on penalizing people under Japan's virus-related ordinances

As part of measures to combat the spread of coronavirus infections, multiple regional assemblies in Japan are considering introducing penalties for people disobeying local anti-transmission policies by instituting or revising ordinances.

    Behind the moves apparently lie regional authorities' frustrations over the national government's failure to promote discussions on binding infection control measures. However, as punitive provisions entail restrictions on personal rights, these localities need to discuss the matter carefully from a national perspective.

    In Tokyo, the metropolitan assembly group Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) is looking into revising a prefectural ordinance to include penalties on those who refuse to take polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Under the amendment bill, a person can be subject to a civil fine of up to 50,000 yen (about $480) if they are advised by a public health center to take a PCR test but refuses to do so without a justifiable reason, even after a governor's order.

    In Fukuoka Prefecture, a suprapartisan group of members in the prefectural assembly is mulling an ordinance that requires those infected with the coronavirus to cooperate with requests by the prefectural government in epidemiological surveys and filing reports. Those who refuse to obey the requests can be subject to a civil fine.

    Under Japan's revised special measures law on new types of influenza and other infectious diseases, prefectural governors are in principle tasked to deal with infection control measures. For this reason, many prefectural governments have complemented the law with their own ordinances based on each region's circumstances. However, discussion on penalties related to coronavirus countermeasures should be held apart from those ordinances.

    In many countries in Europe and North America, stay-at-home orders often come with penalties. In contrast, the Japanese government has sought voluntary cooperation from businesses and individuals. Discussions over the pros and cons of enforcing such requests and penalizing those in violation have not been exhausted at the national level.

    A civil fine is different from a fine levied as a criminal punishment, and is an administrative penalty imposed for minor violations. Given the nature of a civil fine, is it still appropriate to introduce them to promote cooperation with PCR testing and epidemiological surveys?

    To require infected individuals and those who have come into close contact with coronavirus carriers to make reports or go through tests by imposing penalties can promote discrimination and prejudice against them. Some have pointed to the possibility that people may avoid consulting public health centers out of fear of being slapped with a fine. Authorities must closely examine these points as well.

    Some have argued for introducing penalties for businesses that refuse to comply with authorities' requests to temporarily shut down. The National Governors' Association is calling for developing laws to that effect, but the national government is reluctant to take part in the discussion as it is wary of the possibility of such penalties leading to the need to compensate businesses.

    It is not appropriate for regional authorities to take differing responses regarding personal rights restrictions aimed at making infection control measures workable. The national government should present a uniform view on the issue without leaving the decision-making entirely to local bodies.

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