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Weak effect of virus state of emergency prompting Japanese gov't to end declaration

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announces his intention to lift the state of emergency over Tokyo and three other prefectures in the greater Tokyo area, at his office in the capital on the evening of March 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

The Japanese government is poised to lift its declaration of a state of emergency over the spread of the coronavirus despite a slight rise in the number of new infections, as it fears that spreading fatigue from voluntary restraint and acclimatization to the declaration have undermined its effectiveness.

    As there were no prospects of a reduction in the number of infections even if the state of emergency over Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures were extended, the government was pressured to lift the declaration, with a mood of resignation even starting to drift in.

    When asked about the risk of a resurgence of the virus if the declaration were lifted, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told a group of reporters on March 17, "Since the state of emergency was declared, there has actually been about an 80% reduction (in the number of infections). Amid this situation, I understand infections have plateaued and are now slightly rising. I'd like to take measures to firmly prevent a rebound."

    Suga stated that the main reason for extending the state of emergency was pressure on the number of available hospital beds, and said this was also the main reason for lifting it. Looking at the actual figures in the prefectures subject to the state of emergency, 31% of hospital beds in Tokyo were occupied as of March 2, before the current state of emergency was extended, compared with 29% in Kanagawa, 51% in Chiba and 42% in Saitama. But as of March 16 (whose figures were announced the following day), the rates had dropped to 25% each in Tokyo and Kanagawa, 37% in Chiba and 38% in Saitama. The weekly number of infections had also dropped below "Stage 3" (corresponding to a sudden rise), and a senior official at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare commented, "The fact that new beds have been secured has had an effect. An environment where we can look to lift the state of emergency is coming into place."

    However, in Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture, the number of people newly infected with the coronavirus has continued to rise, albeit slightly. An official from Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who previously served as a Cabinet member commented apprehensively, "Even if the (occupancy rate) figures for hospital beds fall, the number of new infections is still increasing, which means that hospital bed figures will also eventually rise."

    The reason the government is set to lift the declaration regardless is that slackness has spread as people have become acclimatized to the state of emergency, and there are no prospects that continuing it would have any effect. One government official commented, "It's no use even if the declaration were to remain in effect. We have no option but to lift it." Those close to the prime minister, meanwhile, have similarly voiced the opinion, that even if the declaration were extended "the situation would remain the same," indicating there is a widespread perception that the effectiveness of the declaration is weakening.

    Due to the prolonged impact of the virus on the economy, the government is reluctant to issue a widespread call for restraint on business activities including during the day, like during the first state of emergency between April and May 2020, and one figure close to the prime minister commented, "Even if we extend it, we have no options."

    There also remains the risk that new infections could increase even if the state of emergency were extended. The prime minister and Cabinet members including economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and health minister Norihisa Tamura gathered at the prime minister's office on March 16, and one Cabinet member commented, "If infections continue to increase like this, the declaration of a state of emergency would be meaningless."

    If the declaration, which was supposed to be the government's treasured last-resort sword to fight the virus, is treated as a blunt imitation sword, then the government will be going into the battle against the virus empty-handed, and prospects of bringing it under control will grow even more distant.

    One official in the Suga administration commented, "If we don't reset the situation somewhere, we won't be able to make the next move." Another senior official at the prime minister's office commented, "People are exhausted from voluntary restraints. If we don't rest here now, then we won't be able to tell people to put in an effort next time."

    (Japanese original by Hironori Takechi and Tadashi Sano, Political News Department)

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