Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has officially declared an emergency in seven cities

Tokyo (TheJapantimes)Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially declared a state of emergency Tuesday covering Tokyo, Osaka and five prefectures over the rapidly growing novel coronavirus outbreak Tuesday, putting the country on an unprecedented alert level amid fears of an explosive surge of patients.

The declaration, which became effective the same day and continues until May 6, the end of the Golden Week holiday in a month’s time, also covers Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures.

The decision reflects the central government’s profound sense of anxiety over the COVID-19 outbreak inside the country, which threatens to collapse the health care system, paralyze the economy and upend the livelihoods of millions of people.

“The most important thing, more than anything, is to change people’s behavior,” Abe said during a government task force meeting, asking for the public’s cooperation in complying with requests to avoid unnecessary outings. “According to an experts’ estimate, if all of us make an effort and reduce our interactions with others by at least 70 to 80 percent … we’ll be able to see the increase in infections peak and then slow down in two weeks,” Abe said.

The Abe administration, too, has been under intense pressure from a growing chorus of public health officials and lawmakers urging the government to take swift action before it’s too late. For about three weeks, the government hesitated to make the bold decision because of its impact on the economy, even though a revised law had laid the groundwork for it to do so.

“When it comes to making the declaration, it’s a fact that we need to be carefully prepared to avoid confusion regarding the state of emergency and the measures to accommodate those who are infected,” Abe said. “We’ve reached today’s decision after we’ve collectively taken these points into consideration.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday that the government’s expert panel has determined that one month is necessary to determine whether the spread of the coronavirus would come to an end and the declaration would have a positive impact overall.

The declaration authorizes the governors in the seven prefectures to request that residents stay home except for essential tasks, such as grocery shopping and seeking medical care. As for businesses, the prefectural governments would also be able to request that they “thoroughly implement infection control measures.”

However, basic infrastructure — electricity, water supply and gas — as well as businesses such as supermarkets, convenience stores, drugstores, banks, post offices and public transportation, will not be impacted by the declaration.

Abe assured lawmakers that the government would not request train and airline operators to reduce their services.

At the same time, he called the prospect of the government directly compensating all individual enterprises affected by the declaration “unrealistic,” highlighting other supportive measures such as financing and cash payments for small and midsized businesses.

The governors would additionally be able to ask that schools, universities, child care facilities, movie theaters, music venues and other facilities temporarily close. If institutions disobey the requests, prefectural governments could then instruct them to close and also disclose the entities’ names, essentially shaming them publicly.

But there are no other penalties against such refusals.

Even under a state of emergency, prefectural governors do not have the legal power to enforce extremely restrictive actions and cannot lock down cities like in the U.S. or Europe.

Such requests from the prefectural government are understood to be taken as a “demand” with a strong expectation that those asked will obey the directives.

In the event of a surge in patients, prefectural governors would also be able to requisition land to build temporary medical facilities and could do so forcefully if a landowner refuses.

Similarly, prefectural governments will have the power to order medicine and food suppliers to sell their goods to authorities. If suppliers refuse, prefectural governments would be able to forcibly procure those goods from them.

The administration consulted with infectious disease experts and the prime minister fielded questions from lawmakers with the Diet earlier Tuesday to fulfill the prerequisites for taking the extraordinary action.

Ahead of declaring the state of emergency, the Cabinet on Tuesday approved a record-shattering ¥108 trillion emergency economic measure.

Abe on Monday said the government would bolster the nationwide capacity for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to 20,000 per day, increase hospital beds that prioritize the treatment of patients with serious symptoms from 28,000 to 50,000, secure about 15,000 ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients and push manufacturers to increase production.

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