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Editorial: Japan gov't must step in as Osaka faces medical system collapse

With the rapid surge in coronavirus patients plaguing Osaka Prefecture, local health care systems are apparently on the brink of collapse.

    The number of daily coronavirus cases in the western Japan prefecture has topped 1,000 for consecutive days and the occupancy rate of hospital beds designated for COVID-19 patients with severe conditions has exceeded 90%. This state of affairs has begun to affect general outpatient practice in the region.

    Experts are harboring an increased sense of crisis over the situation. Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, commented, "The health care system has already begun to fall apart." Shigeru Omi, head of the central government's coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee, also suggested that the government consider an option of declaring yet another state of emergency over the coronavirus.

    It is obvious that the "fourth wave" of COVID-19 infections in Japan has already set in. The government should come to the fore to deal with the alarming circumstances.

    However, the government has been slow to act. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the state of infections "has yet to become a big wave nationwide." He has just left for the United States for his first in-person meeting with the president of the United States since taking office.

    The government implemented quasi-emergency measures against the coronavirus for Osaka Prefecture from April 5. In addition, the Osaka Prefectural Government has also issued its own "medical emergency declaration," calling for local medical institutions to secure additional beds for COVID-19 patients. And yet, the prefecture's health care system has been unable to catch up with the soaring number of coronavirus patients.

    Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura has referred to the possibility of asking the central government to call yet another COVID-19 state of emergency. If the declaration is issued, the governor will be legally empowered to ask residents to refrain from going out and request department stores and other establishments to temporarily close.

    Authorities are poised to evaluate the effect of the quasi-emergency measures until around April 19 after Suga returns to Japan, but won't that be too late?

    Over the past year, we've learned the lesson that if responses to the pandemic fall behind, the spread of infections cannot be staved off. During the third wave of coronavirus infections this past winter, the national government stuck to its policy of continuing with the "Go To Travel" domestic tourism subsidy program, resulting in the delayed issuance of the second state of emergency declaration. That same mistake must not be repeated again.

    Variant strains of the coronavirus, said to have stronger transmissibility than the original strain, have been spreading in various regions of Japan. The government has decided to additionally institute the quasi-emergency measures for the prefectures of Saitama, Kanagawa and Chiba -- which are neighboring Tokyo -- and Aichi in central Japan.

    The quasi-emergency measures are designed to curb infections by limiting areas to be subject to the restrictions. However, it is an urgent task to introduce countermeasures covering even broader areas amid the spread of the coronavirus beyond Osaka Prefecture and Tokyo into surrounding regions.

    The national government appears to be reluctant to call a third state of emergency, apparently in consideration of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer.

    Government officials ought to squarely face the harsh realities suffered by front-line medical workers and must not hesitate to take tougher measures as required.

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