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Editorial: Japan needs structure for applying expert knowledge to COVID-19 efforts

The coronavirus infections spread in Japan shows no signs of slowing. While application of expert knowledge is crucial for effective measures, the country has failed over the past year and some to make the most of the expertise available to it.

    When facing unexpected challenges such as an unknown virus, a government and its experts have no choice but to find a response. That is precisely why, to make decisions, the national government needs to collect as many options with a scientific basis as it can from specialists.

    But Japan's coronavirus response has been criticized as haphazard. Where has it gone wrong?

    An expert panel of researchers in medical science and health care was established after the new virus was first confirmed in the country. The panel advised the government and made policy-making recommendations. This had some success; it resulted in calls for the public to avoid the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact with others, and also advanced measures against cluster infections.

    At the same time, the special measures law on infectious diseases has no provisions for the expert panel, and its position within government was left ambiguous. Their repeated dissemination of information based on epidemiological predictions was taken as if they were making policy decisions, which was sometimes criticized as "rushing."

    The circumstances led to the establishment of a coronavirus subcommittee with experts from wider fields, including economics and law, in July 2020 once the first wave of COVID-19 infections had calmed down.

    Following the subcommittee's inauguration, the Japanese government started the "Go To Travel" domestic tourism subsidy program and "Go To Eat" dining vouchers to boost demand for the domestic restaurant industry.

    There were concerns, backed by knowledge acquired through prior developments, that more people traveling and dining together would lead to infections spreading. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pushed the initiatives through, saying there was "no evidence" to suggest the Go To Travel program had caused infections to spread further, and advancing policies that seemed contrary to preventive measures.

    Japan was hit with subsequent second and third infection waves surpassing the level of the first. Furthermore, despite experts warning of the threat from virus variants, the government was slow to implement measures including an expanded testing system, thereby failing to control the spread of mutant strains.

    As a result, the Japanese government was forced to issue the third coronavirus state of emergency over Tokyo and other areas just a month after the second was lifted.

    What we are seeing consistently is a structure in which situations worsen as expert knowledge is not put to good use.

    Roles are not clearly defined between lawmakers and experts. Prime Minister Suga often has subcommittee chairperson Dr. Shigeru Omi join his news conferences, and asks him to explain the basis for the government's policies.

    However, it is not the job of experts to explain policy-making decisions. Their roles essentially are to describe expected results and limits of preventive measures, and to enlighten the public on the latest knowledge regarding infectious diseases in an easy-to-understand way.

    Looking overseas, anti-virus efforts led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen have been applauded. Their decisions were based on scientific grounds, and they apparently won public sympathy by sending messages that empathized with the people.

    Japanese politicians, too, are required to understand scientific reasoning, make decisions with responsibility and resolutely, and to have skills speaking to the people in their own words.

    To overcome the coronavirus crisis, the people's cooperation is essential. Key to this is public trust in countermeasures and in the government that decided them.

    Before pointing fingers at COVID-19 "self-restraint fatigue" and people's "carelessness" as the causes for infections spreading, the government should make efforts to win back public confidence.

    First, problems with prior measures need to be reviewed, and used as lessons going forward. Japan has a relatively small pool of infectious disease specialists, so a possible approach is to ask for a helping hand from outside the country in reviewing the measures it has taken so far.

    Furthermore, the government is required to utilize a wide variety of expertise -- from economics, law, social sciences to cultural studies -- not just the health care field.

    Expectations are high for organizations such as the Science Council of Japan, which have networks of expert contacts at home and abroad. Now is the time to apply the knowledge and connections of the around 200 members of the representative organization for Japan's scientific community.

    A system to have specialized knowledge apply to policies is also essential for combatting future natural disasters and novel infectious diseases. Politics has a responsibility to build the mechanisms that create that system.

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