Japan Hopes Longer Holiday Marks End of Virus Lockdown
A fortune teller sits at a stall at night in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, Japan. (Photographer: Soichiro Koriyama/Bloomberg)

Japan Hopes Longer Holiday Marks End of Virus Lockdown

(Bloomberg) -- Japan is stepping up efforts to try to contain coronavirus infections by telling people to stay at home during a forthcoming week-long holiday, with the goal of ending the country’s quasi-lockdown when the period ends in early May.

With the nation now in its third week of a state of emergency, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike on Thursday proposed further steps to keep citizens from venturing out and infecting each other. Large companies should add vacation days to the annual Golden Week holiday to turn it into a 12-day break that would start as soon as Saturday, she said. Calling it the “Stay at Home Weeks,” the mayor asked families to stay in the capital and in their homes.

“The holiday period is the moment of truth,” Koike told reporters on Friday. Golden Week is usually one of the busiest travel periods in Japan, with salaried employees combining official holiday and personal time off to return to their hometowns or take trips abroad. Officials have expressed concern that the virus will spread further if people travel, which is what they suspect happened during a sunny and warm three-day weekend in March.

Japan Hopes Longer Holiday Marks End of Virus Lockdown

“This is an extremely critical time in order to end the state of emergency as early as possible,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday at a meeting of a government advisory panel. “This Golden Week, instead of going home in person, go home online using a video call.”

The government will make a decision on whether to extend the state of emergency during the holidays, according to local media reports, with government adviser Shigeru Omi saying that data on May 6, the one-month mark for the state of emergency, will be crucial for making the decision.

‘Disaster’

“I don’t think you can lift the current state of emergency in a month,” Kenji Shibuya, a professor at King’s College London and a former chief of health policy at the World Health Organization, told reporters on Thursday. “If you lift at the time of Golden Week holidays, it will be a disaster.”

On Friday, Tokyo had 161 new cases, reports said. That leaves the total infections for the week practically flat versus the previous seven days. The doubling of cases every five days that led Abe to declare the state of emergency has decelerated, and the “explosive growth” scenario he raised of 10,000 cases in Tokyo by late April hasn’t come to pass.

Japan Hopes Longer Holiday Marks End of Virus Lockdown

But with the origins of the majority of new cases unknown and testing still limited, the extent of the pandemic remains unclear. Abe said the goal of reducing person-to-person interactions by 80% hasn’t yet been met. Koike on Thursday also called for residents to limit grocery shopping to once every three days in response to calls that supermarkets and local shopping districts were too crowded.

While the total number of casualties remains extremely low in Japan compared with other Group of Seven nations, the death on Thursday of another national celebrity, actress and TV host Kumiko Okae, shocked a nation where the virus can still seem at arm’s length.

Japan Hopes Longer Holiday Marks End of Virus Lockdown

Shibuya, who has been critical of Japan’s approach to the disaster, called for the country to “massively” expand its testing capacity to get the pandemic under control. The King’s College professor said Japan needs to reach a capacity of 100,000 tests a day. That’s just slightly less than the total amount of tests the nation has carried out so far. There is evidence to suggest the true number of infected in Japan is 10 times or more the official count of around 11,500 people, according to Shibuya.

“There’s already a community-wide transmission,” Shibuya said. “A huge number of people are infected already.”

Japan has been boosting its testing capacity, with half of all tests having been performed in the past two weeks. However, at 130,000 people checked, the total number of tests performed is a fraction of other nations, with officials citing fears of overwhelming the medical system if testing is expanded. Abe pledged last week to expand testing, opening centers where citizens could get examined directly. Tokyo opened the first “drive-through” testing center in the capital on Thursday.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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