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Japan gov't appears reliant on vaccines as emergency measures test public's patience

Shigeru Omi, right, head of the government's coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee, is seen speaking at a press conference following the decision to expand a state of emergency declaration to three capital region prefectures and Osaka Prefecture, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is seen on the left. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- In response to a nationwide surge in coronavirus infections, the government has decided to expand state-of-emergency measures to cover six prefectures, and newly implement quasi-emergency measures in five prefectures.

    Nevertheless, infections have continued to spread at an alarming pace, and the government has the air of one lacking options. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga increasingly looks like a man desperately relying on the efficacy of vaccines and new treatment methods.

    "There are concerns about widening fatigue from self-restraint. Although I think some want to prioritize ordinary day-to-day life, the Delta variant presents a higher risk of causing severe symptoms even among younger generations," Suga said at a July 30 press conference, indicating his sense of urgency. He additionally called for vigilance, saying, "Until vaccines can display a greater effect, I ask each person to keep their guard up and thoroughly follow infection prevention measures."

    The government's decision to expand areas under state-of-emergency and quasi-emergency measures comes with an implied "announcement effect" that will cause residents to sit up and notice. Measures like banning establishments from serving alcohol and requesting shorter business hours have been made based on provisions in the novel coronavirus special measures law, but an individual connected to the government said the methods seem to have "run their course."

    At a July 30 meeting of the Advisory Committee on the Basic Action Policy tackling the coronavirus, some experts called for a return of measures implemented during the extended public holiday period in May, when large-scale retail centers were asked to temporarily close.

    But another expert pointed out: "Telling people you can't do this, you can't do that, pushes the public to the limit." In the end, new countermeasures only amounted to a few new provisions, including adding a condition to approve some alcohol sales under quasi-emergency measures in cases where there is a "downward trend in infections," and to request that people going outside "limit as much as possible the people they go out with to family and people they normally see, and to keep their number of companions low."

    A senior official at the Cabinet Secretariat conceded, "We wanted to set out something but had exhausted the available options." Part of the reason no new measures were set forward is the lingering effect from the problematic attempt by Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization Yasutoshi Nishimura to use financial institutions to apply pressure on eateries not complying with alcohol-ban requests.

    The same official commented, "People's sense of distrust is growing. If we take harsh measures now, it might create a rift between the government and the people."

    Meanwhile, the government has further advanced its stance of relying on vaccines. At a July 30 meeting of its coronavirus response headquarters, Prime Minister Suga emphasized: "By the end of July, we will have finished about 80% of second shots for over 65s. Already, the number of older people who are infected or have serious symptoms has fallen greatly."

    He also mentioned a new, highly anticipated IV treatment, Ronapreve, announcing: "We will actively provide a new, landmark medicinal treatment that will reduce the risk of severe symptoms."

    One Cabinet minister expressed hope in the measures, saying, "After about a month, the inoculation rate among people in their 40s and 50s will go up sharply, and the number of infected people in their age range will be reduced."

    But, there is no guarantee of progress in vaccinations among people in their 20s and 30s, some of whom are said to be rejecting inoculation. A sense of uncertainty as to whether the state of emergency will be lifted at the end of August as claimed, among other issues, is also prevailing.

    A senior opposition party official expressed irritation: "The prime minister shouldn't just rely on vaccines, he should be making strong calls in his announcements for people to thoroughly adhere to preventive measures."

    (Japanese original by Aoi Hanazawa and Shiho Fujibuchi, Political News Department)

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