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Japan starts 'living with' COVID-19 as disease is downgraded

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Japan has downgraded COVID-19 to a Class 5 disease, and the World Health Organization has lifted its declaration of a state of emergency over the spread of the coronavirus. The phase of prioritizing measures to prevent the spread of infections is coming to an end.

    The special measures law that provided for Japan's response to the coronavirus pandemic allows for strong restrictions on private rights, such as the government being able to confiscate privately owned land in the event of a pandemic caused by a new type of influenza with a high death rate. While this law was applied for a limited time, it is unreasonable to utilize it for the coronavirus at this stage. Considering the excessive burden on public health centers and the adverse health effects associated with a life of self-restraint, it is reasonable to take measures on par with other diseases without giving the coronavirus special treatment.

    Having said that, COVID-19 remains more troublesome than seasonal influenza, which is also a Class 5 disease. While some people develop serious symptoms, a high proportion of people infected with the coronavirus suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, yet they can infect others. It is hard to contain the spread of the virus simply by instructing people to stay at home if they have a fever. Meanwhile, many people suffer from aftereffects, but the mechanism for this is not well understood.

    The death toll from COVID-19 in Japan over the past three years has topped 74,000. Experts are divided over how the virus will mutate in the future, but even if omicron remains the main strain we can still expect COVID-19 to claim the lives of thousands or even tens of thousands of people in Japan each year, including indirect deaths. This could possibly be the tipping point at which the life expectancy of Japanese people stops growing.

    The coronavirus crisis showed the world that infectious diseases threaten even developed countries. As a result of globalization, epidemics that once remained local now spread with unprecedented speed, making countermeasures difficult.

    Japan, with its aging population, has continued to place emphasis on combatting lifestyle-related diseases, cancer and dementia, among other health issues. In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) spread mainly in Asia, but authorities in Japan regarded infectious diseases as a "closed issue," and we cannot deny Japan failed to take proactive measures such as establishing laws and regulations, preparing medical systems and securing human resources.

    While influenza has taken root in society, it claims an estimated 10,000 or so lives in Japan each year, including indirect deaths. People down with the flu are urged to refrain from going to work or school, but there are no other restrictions, and not all people are vaccinated. Instead, a certain number of deaths are tolerated, resulting in the figure we see today. It will take time for society to form such a consensus on the coronavirus. In living with COVID-19, there is no goal for human victory over the virus; we will instead start searching for a path to coexistence with the virus though we did not desire it.

    (Japanese original by Kenji Shimizu, Managing Editor, Lifestyle, Science & Environment News Department)

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