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Frustrated Japanese gov't expanding quasi-emergency virus measures amid lack of results

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, right, is seen announcing that quasi-emergency measures will be applied to the four prefectures of Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa and Aichi, at a meeting of the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on April 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The government expanded coronavirus quasi-emergency measures from six to 10 prefectures across Japan on April 16, aiming to head off a fourth infection wave with a broad plan covering the country's major urban centers without risking the economic hit of another state of emergency.

    One source close to the government described the measures as "equivalent" to a state of emergency declaration, though they are applied to municipalities instead of whole prefectures. However, it has had little effect in western Japan's Osaka Prefecture, where the city of Osaka was put under a quasi-emergency earlier than anywhere else, and the government is showing signs of frustration.

    At an April 16 meeting of the government's Advisory Committee on the Basic Action Policy for the coronavirus, COVID-19 response minister Yasutoshi Nishimura expressed a sense of crisis about the virus' spread, and sought understanding for placing three prefectures neighboring Tokyo and the central prefecture of Aichi under quasi-emergency measures: "It's expected that in May variant strains will become dominant in the Tokyo metropolitan area, Kansai region and the greater Nagoya area. We must respond with extreme caution."

    To prevent a fourth wave of infections, the government set out quasi-emergency measures it could mobilize quickly, including requesting or ordering dining businesses to close early. Though wider areas can be covered under states of emergency, in which prefectural governments can order a business to close outright, they also risk causing severe economic damage. Reissuing the state of emergency lifted only in March would also show the policy to have been a failure, making it a highly unattractive option for the government.

    But with the addition of four more prefectures to quasi-emergency measures, over a quarter of Japan's population -- about 35 million people -- are living in affected municipalities. New infections nationally also topped 4,000 people for the first time in 2 1/2 months on April 14. It's possible that infection numbers have already exceeded the level thought containable by geographically limited quasi-emergency measures.

    At an April 16 meeting of the government's coronavirus countermeasures advisory committee, some attendees said they felt a "state of emergency should be issued" because the conditions -- a speedy, nationwide spread -- have already been met, and multiple experts said a state of emergency should be declared.

    While Nishimura acknowledged that "infection numbers are rising across the country," he also explained: "Quasi-emergency measures and state of emergency declarations should fulfill equivalent roles. We'd like first to be allowed to do this."

    At a subsequent House of Representatives Steering Committee meeting, he said, "If a national, accelerated spread of the virus is taking place, we must not hesitate to declare a state of emergency," but added, "To ensure a declaration isn't needed, we will go ahead with strong infection suppression measures including shortening business hours and refraining from holding events."

    But the quasi-emergency measures being relied on have yet to show results. In Osaka Prefecture, where they have been in force in the city of Osaka since April 5, while morning commuter numbers have fallen somewhat, April 16 saw the prefecture log a record high 1,209 new coronavirus infections.

    A source with the prime minister's office put on a show of calm, saying, "The quasi-emergency measures' effects should be visible after two weeks, around April 19." But at a press conference, secretary-general of the ruling LDP's House of Councillors caucus Hiroshige Seko called for a stronger response, saying, "Whether it's quasi-emergency measures or a declaration, we must embark on tangible measures to stop the flow of people."

    On April 16, Shigeru Omi, the head of the government's advisory committee, told the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare regarding the necessity of a state of emergency declaration: "Next week we'll see clearly if the quasi-emergency measures have had an effect. From next week on, we have to make a conclusive judgment."

    In the last state of emergency from January to March, people became tired of self-restraint, and an official at the prime minister's office sighed and said, "The declaration is our 'last card' so we don't want to play it. But if we just continue quasi-emergency measures for a long time, it's possible people will get complacent again. The prime minister is worried, too."

    (Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi, Political News Department, and Shiho Fujibuchi, Business News Department)

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