The Japanese government has decided to extend a state of emergency over the spread of the coronavirus in nine prefectures. For four of those prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka, this is the second extension in the latest emergency. Originally it was due to expire at the end of this month, but it has now been extended until June 20.
Whether or not measures to curb infections during the extended state of emergency prove successful will significantly influence decisions on the staging of the Olympic and Paralympic Games due to be held this summer.
Over a month has passed since the state of emergency was declared in April, but the daily numbers of infections remain high. Infections have been on a downward trend in Tokyo and Osaka, but the prefectures have still not managed to escape from the equivalent of the Stage 4 level of the outbreak, denoting an explosive spread of infections.
Difficulties securing beds for patients continue. In Osaka there have been a series of cases in which patients have died at home or in facilities for the elderly before they were able to be admitted to hospital.
Vaccinations against COVID-19, which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has portrayed as a "trump card" in the battle against the virus, have only just begun in Japan. He bears a heavy responsibility for being pressured into extending the state of emergency.
During the third wave of infections in the winter, the state of emergency was lifted before infections had sufficiently been brought under control, and as a result, they flared up again. This mistake must not be repeated.
The U.K. strain of the virus, which is highly transmissible, is now the main strain in Japan. Even if fewer people go out, it will take more time than before for new infections to diminish. Japan must formulate effective countermeasures.
Under the state of emergency, if businesses do not comply with requests to halt their operations, prefectural governors can take stronger responses, such as issuing suspension orders. Restaurants and other such businesses will likely suffer even more amid the restrictions, and the government needs to provide sufficient support.
It is also necessary to present clear standards for lifting the state of emergency. The government says it will make a "comprehensive decision," on the premise of bringing the state of infections down to Stage 3 (a surge in infections). But some experts take the view that the level should be brought down to Stage 2 (a gradual increase in infections).
Some areas in Japan have seen an increasing number of people out and about after the "Golden Week" holiday period. The government needs to continue to make efforts to secure the cooperation of businesses and the public by clarifying its standards for lifting the state of emergency.
At the same time, there are fears that the Indian variant of the virus, which is said to be even more transmissible than the U.K. mutation, could spread in Japan. An urgent response is required to curb infections by enhancing testing systems.
It is also essential for the nation to quickly inspect the effectiveness of measures it adopted during the fourth wave of infections in the country, and put the lessons learned into use in the future.
The state of emergency has been set to end around one month before the start of the Olympics in Japan. Haruo Ozaki, head of the Tokyo Medical Association, has stressed that to hold the games, Tokyo would need to curb the number of infections to an average of under 100 cases per day or lower over seven days -- the equivalent of Stage 2.
The Olympic organizing committee has released a "playbook" outlining measures for athletes and those involved in the games to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But the key to controlling the movement of people is whether to allow spectators at the games. Japan has given up on allowing foreign spectators, but the committee has delayed a decision on whether to let domestic fans attend the games.
In areas where the state of emergency has been declared, the numbers of spectators at pro baseball games, J-League soccer matches and other such events are limited to 5,000 people or 50% of the venue's capacity, whichever is smaller.
Based on this stipulation, some within the organizing committee say it would be possible to allow spectators with limits.
The scale of the Olympics, however, is on another level altogether. At this year's games, athletes will be competing in a record 33 sporting disciplines, and prefectures neighboring Tokyo, as well as parts of the Tohoku region and Hokkaido will also be hosting events. If the organizing committee allows spectators, then many people besides those involved in the games will move about the cities, and the risk of a spread of infections will increase across the country.
When considering measures to prevent the spread of infections, staging events without spectators ought to be unavoidable, but with the committee and the government unable to decide on even that, public anxiety has only grown. How will the games be held with "safety and security" amid such circumstances?
If spectators are not allowed at the games, then ticket revenue estimated by the organizers at around 90 billion yen (around $819.3 million) will be lost. But still, the merits of controlling the flow of people and reducing the burden on the medical system outweigh this. Public viewings have been planned while the games are in progress, but events where large numbers of people gather should not be held.
In the meantime, there has been a succession of callous statements flying in the face of public sentiment, with one International Olympic Committee official saying recently that "barring Armageddon" the games would go ahead.
The biggest role of the government is to protect the public. Prime Minister Suga has stated that he would "stand at the forefront and work on measures" to battle the coronavirus. He must not prioritize the Olympic schedule when announcing an end to the state of emergency.