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Editorial: With 3rd COVID-19 emergency, Japan faces crucial stage in protecting lives

The government has decided to declare a third state of emergency for Tokyo and the western Japan prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo due to the spread of the coronavirus. It will remain in place for 17 days from April 25 to May 11.

    The declaration comes just over a month after a state of emergency in the capital and other areas was lifted. At the time, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated, "It is my responsibility to implement policies to ensure that another declaration does not have to be issued." Public distrust over his administration's misgovernment is increasing.

    Highly infectious variants of the virus are spreading and severe COVID-19 cases are multiplying not just among the elderly but also among those in their 40s and 50s. It has been pointed out that Osaka Prefecture is facing hospital bed shortages, and the medical system in the prefecture is starting to collapse.

    This is a crucial stage when it comes to protecting people's lives, and the government's preparedness is being put to the test.

    -- Suga's underestimation of virus variants

    With the last state of emergency, the declaration was lifted without a sufficient reduction in the number of new cases of the virus. In western Japan's Kansai region, the government decided to lift the state of emergency a week earlier than it had originally planned to.

    When the number of infections started to increase again in Kansai, the government tried to bring the situation under control with the implementation of "quasi-emergency measures" limited to specific areas. But the spread of mutant strains became apparent, and in spite of experts' calls for enhanced measures, the government did not respond swiftly.

    Even after it became clear that Japan was facing a fourth wave of infections, Prime Minister Suga did not acknowledge it, saying, "We have not got to the point of a large nationwide surge." But pressure from prefectural governors cornered him into declaring the latest state of emergency.

    Perhaps Suga was caught up with trying to ease the economic impact of the pandemic. The national government should quickly examine its response to date. If it does not do so, it could repeat the same mistake.

    To curb people's movements, the latest declaration calls for the suspension of businesses serving alcohol as well as commercial facilities that attract crowds, such as department stores. Businesses that do not comply with orders could be subject to administrative penalties.

    Osaka Prefecture requested that the business suspension request also apply to underground shopping arcades and other such complexes, but the national government was reluctant to do so, citing the large economic impact, leaving the prefectural and central governments out of step.

    Measures to support businesses and protect people's employment are essential. The government should not hesitate to utilize the 5 trillion yen ($46.3 billion) in reserve funds that have been set aside for coronavirus countermeasures. Another idea could be to divert funds that were intended for the "Go To" campaigns to spur domestic demand.

    Three prefectures neighboring Tokyo, including Saitama Prefecture to the north of the capital, were not subject to the latest declaration, unlike last time when the government grouped them together with Tokyo.

    The three neighboring prefectures have measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus, but it is feared that people could flow into those prefectures from Tokyo, where tougher restrictions will be in force. Measures must be strengthened to avert such a scenario.

    Experts have pointed out that the state of emergency would need to be implemented for at least three weeks. The government says the measures are concentrated on the Golden Week series of national holidays from late April to early May, but it's questionable why the state of emergency period was restricted to 17 days. It takes time to gauge new infection figures and the effectiveness of measures to control the number of serious COVID-19 cases.

    The medical sector, meanwhile, is exhausted. Practitioners have delivered a strong message that to lift the state of emergency declaration, it is necessary to first sufficiently reduce the number of infected people and patients in serious condition.

    International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is due to visit Tokyo in mid-May in connection with preparations for the Tokyo Games. Japan must not rush to lift the state of emergency out of consideration for the Olympic schedule.

    -- In-depth explanations to gain public cooperation

    Under the state of emergency, people will once again be called upon to "stay home." There are concerns that when people stay at home, they will build up stress, which could lead to more cases of domestic trouble. We hope that related organizations will prepare consultation systems, and that they will not fail to look out for people facing such problems.

    Since the declaration last spring, restrictions on people's lives have continued, and it is apparent that people are getting tired of self-restraint. In Tokyo, in particular, there have been fewer new infections that in Osaka, and there are concerns that people's sense of crisis could diminish as they get used to the prevalence of the coronavirus.

    To get public cooperation for measures to prevent infections, the government must provide an easily understandable explanation of the background to the boosting of countermeasures and why they are necessary. It is important for the government to persevere in seeking understanding regarding the situations that pose a high risk of infection, and actions that people should avoid.

    The government has faced delays in securing vaccines -- seen as the trump card in the battle against infections -- as well as in local bodies' vaccination systems. Even with elderly people who are said to be at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms, vaccinations are expected to take until around summer this year.

    Until vaccines are administered widely among the public, Japan must get by with thorough measures to prevent infections and the improvement of medical systems. The government should squarely look at the tough state of affairs, and pour its effort into establishing an effective strategy.

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