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Editorial: Level-headed talks needed on penalizing noncompliance in Japan amid pandemic

As part of coronavirus countermeasures, the Japanese government is considering penalizing people who do not comply with virus-related requests and will submit a bill to revise the related law to the ordinary Diet session scheduled to convene on Jan. 18.

    The government is mulling amending the infectious disease control law to impose fines on people refusing to be admitted to hospitals or inspected by public health centers. It also plans to impose a fine on firms that fail to comply with requests to shorten business hours by revising the special measures law to tackle new types of influenza and other infectious diseases.

    However, penalties come with concerns over controlling personal rights. Out of respect for human rights, it is essential not to impose more restrictions than are necessary. Cool-headed debate should be conducted without being fueled by anxiety.

    Under the infectious disease control law, coronavirus patients can be asked to stay at a hospital to avoid spreading the disease. However, there are cases in which people, who are recovering at home or at accommodation due to hospital bed shortages, go outside without permission.

    The government says that in such cases it plans to ask patients to be hospitalized, and impose a fine of up to 1 million yen (about $9,620) if they do not comply. By introducing these measures, it aims to increase the effectiveness of coronavirus prevention efforts.

    But whether such cases occur to the extent that they hinder the effectiveness of coronavirus countermeasures remains unknown. The government should analyze the actual situation and provide detailed explanations.

    Implementing penalties could lead to promoting discrimination against COVID-19 patients. It can be assumed that some patients may refrain from seeing a doctor even if they are ill. There are people who find hospitalization difficult due to family circumstances. Rigid and inflexible responses must be avoided.

    The reason the government is considering imposing fines on companies is that an increasing number of firms are refusing to shorten business hours.

    Under the current law, however, it is possible for the government to issue instructions -- a stricter response than just asking for compliance -- and announce the names of noncompliant businesses. The government should first make use of the current law to its full extent, then consider imposing penalties as a next step.

    It has been difficult for the central government to obtain compliance from businesses as they surely fear economic losses if they voluntarily refrain from certain activities. Expanding the cooperative fund system may increase the effectiveness of coronavirus prevention measures more than introducing penalties does.

    When discussions on penalties are held amid rising anxiety due to the spread of infections, it tends to lead to strengthened punitive clauses. Even if penalties are imposed, they must be verified and reviewed once infections are contained.

    The state of emergency issued for Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures will be expanded to Osaka and two other prefectures in the Kansai region in western Japan.

    Until now, the Japanese government and local governments have stood out for their late responses to the resurgence in coronavirus cases. Penalties should not be imposed to make businesses and citizens pay for those mistakes.

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