TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) – Japan is emerging as one of the riskiest places for the spread of the coronavirus, prompting criticism that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has misfired on its policies to block the outbreak.
The number of infections in Japan has more than doubled in the past week to 74, rivalling Singapore as the country outside mainland China with the most cases.
The government is being faulted for being too slow to bar visitors from China and too lax in its quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where infections surged during two weeks docked in Yokohama.
While the hundreds of cases aboard the ship have grabbed the world’s attention, they are not counted among Japan’s total.
What appears to be more troublesome is that Japan is starting to see a surge in cases in multiple areas across the country – sometimes with little to link the outbreaks.
Adding to the worries is that passengers began leaving the quarantined vessel on Wednesday (Feb 19) amid concerns some might later test positive and take the virus to more parts of Japan.
The situation is growing more alarming as Japan’s elderly population and work ethic present high-risk scenarios for the outbreak’s spread.
“The Japanese government’s decision to wait for the China-friendly WHO to make its much-delayed declaration of a global health emergency led to the first cases of domestic person-to-person transmission and tarnished the country’s international reputation,” Mr Richard Koo, chief economist at Nomura Research Institute, wrote in a report.
“The coronavirus will probably cause a substantial amount of economic damage in Japan,” Mr Koo wrote.
The Abe administration, he says, “managed to completely drop the ball on this issue”.
As the threat of the coronavirus became apparent in January, Japan’s stance of rejecting travel bans for Chinese tourists stood in stark contrast to nations such as Australia, which barred entry. Chinese tourism to Japan hit a January record high, with Tokyo’s travel curbs only taking effect on Feb 1.
And while businesses in Hong Kong and Singapore implemented work-from-home experiments on a scale never before seen, Mr Abe merely acknowledged telework as “one effective strategy”.
The US and others placed a 14-day quarantine on repatriated nationals, but about 500 people cleared by Japan left the ship on Wednesday to go about their normal lives, and were told to call authorities if they feel ill.
In the absence of travel bans, visitors to Japan fell only 1.1 per cent in January, a drop that was mainly due to an ongoing spat with South Korea, with tourists from China lodging a surprising 23 per cent increase compared with the year earlier.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation and the International Olympic Committee have refused to countenance any cancellation of the Olympics, set to begin in July.
Others have said there is little that can be done to prevent the eventual spread of the disease.
“This virus spread very, very fast. Not only China, not only Japan, but also many other countries cannot catch up with the speed of this virus,” professor of virology Hitoshi Oshitani of Tohoku University told reporters in Tokyo.
Prof Oshitani also sits on the government panel tackling the virus.
“Even if they implemented a travel ban to all of China, it was too late.”