After weeks of partially clumsy crisis management, the Japanese government suddenly closes all schools to bring COVID-19 under control. The fear is that the Olympic Games could be canceled.
On Thursday evening, the Japanese rubbed their eyes in amazement: from Monday, 13 million students will stay at home for a month. Primary, middle and high schools will only open again after the spring break at the beginning of the new school year in early April. With the exception of China, Japan is the only country to have taken this unprecedented measure against the coronavirus. Children’s health and safety are top priorities, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
The move shocked the nation because the head of government had previously managed the crisis with a mixture of disinterest and complacency. He left the crisis team meetings after only a few minutes and showed little concern. Japan’s borders remained open to Chinese who did not come from the epidemic provinces. At the same time, the prime minister left it at the request to work from home and to avoid crowds. “The absence of political leadership was striking,” said German Japanese expert Sebastian Maslow from the University of Tokyo.
The rather negligent attitude to the risk of viruses then came to light on the cruise ship “Princess Diamond” in the port of Yokohama. The infection expert Kentaro Iwata described the quarantine measures on the ship as “completely chaotic”. Japanese passengers with a negative test result were allowed to leave the ship and take the train home, while other countries such as Germany isolated their returnees for 14 days. The Ministry of Health officials who boarded the ship were not tested afterward.
IOC member stirs up fear of refusal
Only a warning from abroad woke Abe and his cabinet out of their lethargy. Dick Pound, Canadian Vice President of the International Olympic Committee, made it clear that the Olympic Games in Tokyo would have to be decided by the end of May. A shift is not possible because of television rights and the filled sports calendar. The impending cancellation of the games rang the alarm bells in the Kasumigaseki region. Abe suddenly asked to postpone or cancel major events in the next two weeks. This period is crucial in containing the viral disease, the politician said.
Companies and organizations painted on them conferences and trade fairs, museums closed, the J-League football clubs postponed their game days, the national sport of baseball takes place in front of empty ranks. On the same day as Abe’s announcement, head of organization Toshiro Muto reaffirmed that the Olympic Games would take place. The torch relay through Japan will start on March 26 in Fukushima as planned. The coordination commission is also “fully” committed to the scheduled staging, said IOC President Thomas Bach in a conference call with the Japanese media.
A low number of cases due to too few tests?
The Japanese government could have been satisfied with that. But the rapid spread of the virus in other countries has raised doubts abroad whether Japan is really doing enough about COVID-19. So far, the country has reported only 210 illnesses and four deaths. The numbers hardly increase, although the cases are spread across all regions. This raises the suspicion that only the tip of an iceberg can be seen. “For every person who tested positive, there are probably hundreds of people who have not tested with mild symptoms,” Masahiro Kami, head of the Medical Governance Institute in Tokyo, told Bloomberg Financial Services.
Because unlike in South Korea, there is hardly any testing in Japan. One reason: Potentially ill people have to meet several conditions such as a long fever for a test. The procedure should probably avoid panic, protect the health system and save costs. Some hospitals refuse test requests for fear of possible quarantine. Between February 18 and 23, only 5,700 tests, including those on the cruise ship, took place, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato reported in parliament.
Criticism of school closure
In the face of growing criticism from the opposition against this undecided crisis policy, the head of government is trying to restore his authority with the abrupt school closure. However, many working parents are now forced to take time off to look after their children. Abe received some criticism for this on Twitter, the most important social medium in Japan. The prime minister also created anger and confusion within his own ranks. Officials at the Ministry of Education were not informed and thought the step was wrong. “Who will take care of the younger elementary school students? A nationwide school closure poses so many problems that it cannot possibly be an option,” said a senior official. Abe also refrained from providing convincing medical reasons. “
But there is a lot at stake for Abe. “He wants to regain lost confidence in his ability as a crisis manager,” commented political scientist Maslow. In fact, the weakness of politics and administration in the virus fight reminds some observers of the amateurish way of dealing with the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in March 2011. At that time, the prime minister – it was Naoto Kan – had to take his hat off. Abe now wants to avoid this fate. However, his unexpected turnaround in virus policy threatens to trigger panic for the first time: on Friday, handkerchiefs and toilet paper were sold out in many shops.