Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lifted a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and 4 other remaining areas on Monday, ending the restrictions nationwide.
No restrictions were placed on residents’ movements, and businesses from restaurants to hairdressers stayed open. No high-tech apps that tracked people’s movements were deployed, The country doesn’t have a center for disease control. And even as nations were exhorted to ” test, test, test,” Japan has tested just 0.2% of its population, one of the lowest rates among developed countries.
Yet the curve has been flattened, with deaths well below 1,000 by far the fewest among the group of seven developed nations. In Tokyo, its dense center, cases have dropped to single digits on most days. While the possibility of a more severe second wave of infection is ever-present, Japan has entered and is set to leave its emergency in just weeks, with the status lifted already for most of the country and Tokyo and the remaining four other regions set to exit Monday.
Analyzing just how Japan defied the odds and contained the virus while disregarding the playbook used by other successful countries has become a national conversation.
Experts consulted by Bloomberg News also suggested a mass factor that contributed to the outcome and none could point to a singular policy package that could be replicated in other countries. Nonetheless, these measures still offer long-term lessons for countries in the middle of the pandemic that may yet last for years.
An early grassroots response to rising infections was crucial. While the central government has been criticized for its slow policy steps experts praise the role of Japan’s contact tracers, which swung into action after the first infections were found in January. The fast response was enabled by one of Japan’s inbuilt advantages its public health centers which in 2018 employed more than half of 50,000 public health nurses who are experienced in tracing of infections. In normal times, these nurses would be tracking down more common infections such as influenza and tuberculosis.
While countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. are just beginning to hire and train contact tracers as they attempt to reopen their economies, Japan has been tracking the movement of the disease since the first handful of cases were found. These local experts focused on tackling so-called clusters, or groups of infections from a single location such as clubs or hospitals, o contain cases before they got out of control.
The early response was also boosted by an unlikely happening. Japan’s battle with the virus first came to mainstream international attention with its much-criticized response to the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February that led to hundreds of infections. The possibility that the virus strain spreading in Japan may have been different, and less dangerous, to that faced by other nations has also been raised.
Experts are also credited with creating an easy-to-understanding message of avoiding what is called the “3 C” – Closed Spaces, Crowded Spaces, and Close-contact settings rather than keeping away from others entirely. The ‘Three C’s’ are a much more pragmatic approach and very effective, while having a similar effect.
In April, a Tokyo hospital conducted tests on a handful of non-COVID patients and found that around 7% had coronavirus, showing the danger of missing asymptomatic or mild careers that can become the source of an outbreak. An antibody test on 500 people in the capital suggested the true outbreak could be nearly 20 times larger than figures have shown. Analog contact tracing breaks down when infection numbers are high, and reports of people unable to get tested or even medical treatment for COVID-like symptoms peppered social media during the height of the outbreak.
And the fact remains that Japan’s response was less than perfect. While the overall population is much smaller, Asian neighbors such as Taiwan had just 7 confirmed deaths from the virus while Vietnam had none.
Moreover, the country’s prime minister has announced that Japan has begun restarting its post-Coronal social and economic activities as a result of the control measures taken against the spread of the corona last month and a half. He also added that a supplementary budget, including relief schemes, will be submitted to reform the economy. Its economy, already dealing with the impact of a sales tax hike in October, officially slid into recession in the first 3 months of the year. Economists have warned the second quarter will be the worst, and the specter of deflation, which haunted the economy for decades, once again looms. As in other countries, bankruptcies have risen sharply.
Japan with about 16,600 confirmed cases and about 850 deaths has so far avoided the large outbreaks that have been experienced in the US and Europe despite its softer restrictions. Officials have begun to speak of a phase in which people “live with the virus’’ with a recognition that Japan’s approach has no possibility of wiping out the pathogen.