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Editorial: Japan needs to mend virus quarantine loophole as infections hit US base

A cluster of COVID-19 infections has been reported at U.S. Marine Corps Camp Hansen in central Okinawa Prefecture. Over 220 people, including Marines flying in to Okinawa from the United States in early December, have tested positive so far. It has also been confirmed that Japanese workers and others at the base have contracted the omicron variant. We cannot allow U.S. bases in Japan to create a loophole in the country's border control against the coronavirus.

    The Japanese government has banned foreign arrivals to the country as a general rule. However, those affiliated with the U.S. military are exempted from immigration and quarantine processes based on the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement and other arrangements, and they're allowed to go outside their bases.

    While concerns over the virus are spreading among local residents, the U.S. military's handling of the issue appears to lack earnestness.

    The Okinawa Prefectural Government requested genomic analysis of coronavirus samples to check whether the infected Marines had the omicron variant. The U.S. military, however, responded that they couldn't do this due to a lack of appropriate equipment. And they refused to submit samples on the grounds of protecting privacy even after the Okinawa government offered to help.

    It was not until Dec. 22 that the U.S. showed willingness to comply with some of the testing requested by the Japanese government. But the U.S. military maintains that genomic analysis is to be done by sending samples from personnel to their home country.

    Quick responses are necessary to identify the virus and therefore prevent the spread of infections. The U.S. military should conduct genomic analysis immediately with assistance from the Okinawa government while paying attention to privacy protection.

    The U.S. military has maintained that those infected with the coronavirus are placed under quarantine at the base and that others are also given strict regulations regarding their activities. Amid all this, however, a Marine belonging to Camp Hansen was arrested on suspicion of DUI outside the base. Such an example does nothing to convince us that military members are under strict activity rules.

    Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki has asked the U.S. military to take measures including a lockdown to keep its members inside the base. U.S. bases in Japan cannot be operated in a stable manner without local community's trust. The U.S. military needs to take this issue seriously and work on removing any concerns by disclosing information.

    To protect the lives and livelihoods of the Japanese people, the Japanese government also needs to strongly request that the U.S. carry out thorough testing and make sure that its own military personnel are following activity rules.

    This isn't just an issue concerning Okinawa Prefecture, as U.S. bases are located across Japan. The Japanese government needs to develop awareness that infection clusters at U.S. bases are an issue relating to the country's border control as a whole, and should take responsibility to quickly cover this loophole.

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