The COVID-19 pandemic continues its rampage across the world, with second waves occurring due to various reasons, one of which is premature lifting of restrictions combined with the lack of personal responsibility. In the United States especially, the number of COVID-19 cases continue to be alarming. Meanwhile, in other countries like Japan, the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions are leading to the revitalization of the economy without the uncontrolled resurgence of the virus.
From the get-go, Japan’s COVID-19 numbers have been a source of puzzlement for many a pundit. Analysts from the world over have mulled over the infection and mortality rates; and while the country does not have the lowest COVID-19 death rate in its region, it does have a lower than average overall death rate. Considering that in April, there were about 1,000 “excess deaths” (which could possibly attributed to COVID-19) in Tokyo, this figure is even more impressive.
A host of theories have naturally cropped up – from the Japanese people being superior in makeup and thus more immune to the virus to the culture and norms being a natural deterrent to the spread of the virus.
Looking at measurable facts, signs point to the policies that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet have implemented. While there was some controversy surrounding Japan’s early encounter with the coronavirus when the cruise ship Diamond Princess docked on its shores in February, that situation also prepared the country for the pandemic. Months after the infection spread in the ship, scientists continued to gather data and learn from the incident.
One of the crucial steps that the Prime Minister took early in the game was to pick the right people to do the job. Instead of turning the situation into a political or power match, he handed the reigns over to scientists, doctors, and policy makers who had the expertise to handle a pandemic. As a result, Japan’s response to COVID-19 has been swift and effective, albeit contrary to the rest of the world.
It is this contrariness that has made Japan and its COVID-19 situation a mystery to outsiders. While his peers implement hard lockdowns – to varying degrees of success – Prime Minister Abe went for softer restrictions and appealed to the Japanese people to be responsible for their actions in the fight against the virus.
Owing to the way the government responded to the situation, the cluster-suppression task force discovered the Three Cs in the early stages of the pandemic. According to Dr. Kazuaki Jindai, a member of the task force, “Our figures… showed many infected people had visited music venues where there is screaming and singing… we knew that those were the places people needed to avoid.” They identified activities such as “singing karaoke parlours, parties, cheering at clubs, conversations in bars and exercising in gyms” as high-risk and thus to be avoided.
Furthermore, the team discovered that only a small percentage of carriers actually spread the virus – 20 percent.
This led to the creation of the Three Cs campaign, which spurred people to avoid:
- Closed spaces with poor ventilation
- Crowded places with many people
- Close contact settings such as face-to-face conversations.
With this campaign pushed hard nationwide and the people taking it upon themselves to follow the Three Cs, the spread of the infection was slowed down so much so that the strict lockdowns implemented in other countries was not necessary in Japan. While a nationwide state of emergency was declared at some point, it still gave the Japanese people a measure of leeway compared to other countries.
Another critical element in the government’s response is the timing. As Professor Kenji Shibuya (director of Public Health at Kings College, London and a former senior adviser to the government) said, it was all about timing. He said that the state of emergency couldn’t have been declared at a better time.
“To me, it was a timing lesson…If such measures were delayed, we might have experienced a similar situation like New York or London. The death rate (in Japan) is low. But a recent study by Columbia University suggests that if New York had implemented lockdown measure two weeks earlier, it would have prevented tens of thousands of deaths,” he said.
In terms of dealing with the infected, the country’s existing infrastructure contributed to efficient treatment. The healthcare system was never in danger of becoming overwhelmed, and as mentioned before, death rates have been consistently low.
All these back up the decision of Prime Minister Abe to lift the restrictions earlier than planned, in an effort to help kickstart the economy. He has also provided the biggest ever stimulus package – two parts amounting to 234 trillion yen (around 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product) – ensuring the survival of businesses and individual households.
It has been several months since the coronavirus hit the world, and Japan is slowing bouncing back. This relatively quick recovery can be attributed to some things unique to the country, not the least of which are the policies and strategies Prime Minister Abe and his government put in place.