TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) – Japan was one of first countries outside of China hit by the coronavirus and now, it is one of the least-affected among developed nations. That’s puzzling health experts.
Unlike China’s draconian isolation measures, the mass quarantine in much of Europe and big United States cities ordering people to shelter in place, Japan had imposed no lockdown. While there have been disruptions caused by school closures, life continues as normal for much of the population. Tokyo rush hour trains are still packed and restaurants remain open.
The looming question is whether Japan dodged a bullet or is about to be hit. The government contends it has been aggressive in identifying clusters and containing the spread, which makes its overall and per capita number for infections among the lowest among developed economies. Critics argue Japan has been lax in testing, perhaps looking to keep the infection numbers low, as it’s set to host the Olympics in Tokyo in July.
Japan’s initial slow response to the virus, its handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship – where about one in five people aboard became infected while it was quarantined in Yokohama – and the decision not to initially block travel from China left the nation open to criticism that it could become home to a “second Wuhan”. Steps taken to contain the virus – such as shutting schools and calling off large events – now look tame in comparison to what others have done.
But as of Wednesday (March 18), Japan has only had a little more than 900 confirmed cases – excluding the cruise ship. The US, France and Germany were all above 7,000 cases and Italy was nearing 36,000. Neighbour South Korea, which tested aggressively amid a surge of confirmed infections from late February, was at about 8,500 cases but its new infections are now tapering off.
In Tokyo, among the world’s most densely packed metropolitan areas, cases made up 0.0008 per cent of the population. The northern main island of Hokkaido, the skiing destination that was Japan’s worst-hit area, is already lifting a state of emergency, as new cases have slowed.
Professor Kenji Shibuya of King’s College London and a former chief of health policy at the World Health Organisation sees two possibilities: that Japan has contained the spread by focusing on outbreak clusters, or that there are outbreaks yet to be found.
“Both are reasonable, but my guess is that Japan is about to see the explosion and will inevitably shift from containment to delay-the-peak phase very soon,” he said. “The number of tests is increasing, but not enough.”
Japan’s proximity to China may have helped in raising the alarm when the disease was in a more controllable phase. In late January, shortly after Japan’s first infection of a person who had not been to China, hand sanitisers starting popping up in offices and stores, mask sales spiked and people began to accept some basic steps to protect public health. This may have also helped Japan flatten the curve for infections.
“Japan has been fortunate that only a small number of cases of SARS-CoV-2 were brought into the country, and they seem to have remained concentrated in finite areas, easy to control,” said Mr Laurie Garrett, an American global health writer, referring to the technical name of the coronavirus … (read more)