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Editorial: Stricter COVID-19 measures necessary as Japan moves to end state of emergency

The state of emergency issued in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures to tackle the spread of coronavirus infections will be lifted on March 21 as scheduled. The Japanese government likely considered the declaration's prolonged effect on the economy as the second state of emergency extended for 2 1/2 months. Some within the administration take the view that a further extension would have no effect in combating the spread of infections.

    However, if the state of emergency is going to be lifted solely because the government is out of options, anxiety among the public will not be dispelled.

    The number of new infections per day has dropped to a level equivalent to "Stage 3," corresponding a rapid rise in infections, one step down from the worst stage in the government's four-point scale. This was the administration's rough guideline for ending the state of emergency. Hospital bed occupancy rates have also eased slightly compared to two weeks ago, when the declaration was extended for the second time.

    At the same time, the number of infections has shifted from somewhat flattened levels to a slight increase. Strong concerns remain among experts over the resurgence of the virus.

    Looking back to when the second state of emergency was declared in January, transmission risks involving dinner gatherings were initially emphasized, and the message reached the public. But halfway through the declaration, when the government raised the alarm over dining during lunchtime, the message failed to reach people.

    When the government decided to extend the state of emergency for the second time in the greater Tokyo area, it did not present new measures to bring down infection numbers. This was because the administration had regarded the additional two weeks as an extension period to improve hospital bed occupancy rates, but it's been pointed out that the government was unable to make a good use of those two weeks. The lessons learned during this period need to be utilized in the next stage.

    Recently, the daily number of new infections has topped 1,000 nationwide -- the same level as that seen during the second wave of infections last year. And as the season for cherry blossom-viewing and farewell and welcome parties, among other spring events in Japan, is approaching, we are facing a heightened risk of transmission.

    Upon the lifting of the state of emergency, opportunities for people to go out and eat and drink will increase. It is essential that we continue to take countermeasures without letting our guards down.

    In Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures, requests for restaurants to shorten their business hours -- a pillar of their coronavirus measures -- will continue, while relaxed time requirements will allow them to stay open until 9 p.m. The prefectural governments say this measure will remain in place until the end of March, but when it comes to deciding whether this move is sufficient, officials should monitor the state of infections.

    The central government will conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests in busy entertainment districts to monitor and detect signs of a resurgence of the virus. Building the necessary framework is an urgent task.

    While vaccines are expected to help prevent COVID-19 symptoms from developing and causing severe illnesses, the vaccine rollout in Japan is lagging behind schedule. The start of vaccinations for older people did not happen in time for the end of the state of emergency. Starting from May, when the vaccine supply is expected to increase, the central government must take all possible measures and build a system to ensure the vaccination process goes smoothly.

    From here on, what is particularly concerning is the spread of coronavirus variants. They are said to be more infectious, and there are some reports that point to their potential of causing more serious symptoms. We are already seeing an upward trend in the number of patients infected with such mutant viruses.

    The government is set to beef up its capacity to monitor variant strains. It needs to swiftly come up with measures to curb the spread of infections by accelerating efforts to collect and analyze data regarding coronavirus variants, including information on the efficacy of vaccines and the age groups that are prone to infection.

    Looking overseas, new variants have been reported. Japan should further strengthen its border controls.

    It is also essential to expand medical services. Along with efforts to secure hospital beds, a key measure will be to have protocol in place to quickly respond to a spike in the number of infected people. There is also a need to develop a framework for patients recovering at home so that their family doctors or nurses who provide visiting care can respond in case their conditions suddenly worsen.

    Meanwhile, the government must not neglect preventive efforts just because it wants to maintain a balance between keeping the economy running and taking coronavirus countermeasures. What is worrying is the issue of restarting the "Go To Travel" subsidy campaign and other demand-boosting policies. Governors in some areas have demanded the central government resume such programs as soon as possible in prefectures where the state of infections is stable.

    While we understand the reality that the tourism industry is struggling, a hasty decision to restart the subsidy campaigns could send the public the mistaken message that transmission risks have faded. A cautious approach is required.

    If an upward trend of infections becomes obvious, it is crucial for the government to strengthen countermeasures at an early stage. That way, potential effects on the economy can be kept to a minimum.

    When the third wave of infections hit Japan last fall, the central government fell behind in its response. It has been pointed out that the government hesitated to make decisive moves on the grounds that it was contemplating a "comprehensive judgement" based on numerous indicators, and postponed taking stricter measures.

    The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are scheduled for this summer. We cannot accept the government getting cold feet about beefing up countermeasures out of concern for their potential effects on the games.

    The Japanese government faced the third wave of infections without sufficient medical or testing systems after failing to thoroughly examine the first and second waves. It cannot afford to make the same mistake in the future.

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