Japan Expands Virus Emergency to 70% of Population on Covid Surge

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expanded a state of emergency to eight more areas and cover more than 70% of the population as a delta-variant fueled surge sends Covid-19 cases to records and puts strains on the medical system.

Suga said Wednesday the eight areas that include the northern island of Hokkaido and the central industrial prefecture of Aichi would be placed under a state of emergency from Friday that runs until Sept. 12. When the expansion takes effect, 21 areas that make up 79% of Japan’s economy will be under a state of emergency, including the Tokyo and Osaka metro regions.

“In most areas, we are seeing an unprecedented surge in new cases,” Suga told a news conference. “The highly infectious delta variant is spreading and it’s becoming even more difficult to contain.” 

The move comes as Japan hosts the Paralympics and before Suga faces a leadership vote in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party expected for next month. Public support for Suga has fallen to record lows and any major stumbles in virus management that erode support in the LDP and further sour public sentiment could have him join a long line of short-serving premiers -- ahead of a general election that must be held by November.

The states of emergency, which have few legal teeth, have become less effective in changing people’s behavior over time. Many bars and restaurants are ignoring instructions to close early and stop serving alcohol, despite the threat of fines. 

Suga said implementing a lockdown would be difficult under Japan’s legal system. He also said he would decide this week to use 1.4 trillion yen ($12.7 billion) in reserves on items including vaccines, medication and subsidies. 

There are no penalties for individuals who disobey instructions to stay at home, so many have continued their normal routines -- something that has mitigated the damage to the economy.

Japan managed to avoid a recession last quarter largely because shoppers shrugged off government warnings on the virus, but activity levels in Tokyo are still far lower than in New York and London, according to Apple Mobility Trends data. Japan found about 21,500 new virus cases Tuesday.

While Japan has been closing the gap among other Group of Seven nations for vaccinations, its rate for fully inoculated ranked last among the countries at about 43% of the population. Canada is at 66% and the U.S. is at 52%. Suga told the news conference Japan has secured enough vaccines for third shots for individuals from next year. 

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