Building on data that shows omicron poses a lower risk than previous variants, public figures from the governor of Tokyo to former prime minister Shinzo Abe have signaled support for downgrading the legal status of the virus to the Japan. The change would expand access to health care for patients, making the virus no different from the flu.
This is a debate that is taking place all over the world, especially in the West. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called on Europe to treat the virus as a constant of daily life in a recent interview on radio station Cadena Ser. And countries around the world, from India to the UK, are resisting a return to shutdowns despite omicron’s rapid appearance as politicians lose their appetite for mass disruption.
In Asia, which has generally been much tougher on containing the virus since the pandemic began, Japan is in many ways the most likely to change. Officials have never deployed mandatory lockdowns, in part because the constitution does not include the right to take emergency action in a crisis. Even as infections rose, Japan distinguished its policies from those of the iron fist in places like China. Many requests to businesses to restrict opening hours or require vaccinations can simply be ignored.
Downgrading Covid status would also have the immediate impact of freeing up medical resources at hospitals that are currently refusing to treat infected patients because they say they are not equipped to handle the disease.
Even so, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida urged caution and pushed back against his predecessor, who called for becoming endemic in an interview earlier this month with local media. Kishida told reporters last week that it was still too early to downgrade the virus given the omicron workload.
Japan reported more than 40,000 new cases on Wednesday, although the “serious” ones rose by only 20, according to national broadcaster NHK. The public generally supported efforts to keep the virus out: after the government banned new foreign arrivals in November, an opinion poll found nearly 90% of people approved of the measure.
Nonetheless, the topic has a growing resonance in Japan, with Abe being one of the most prominent proponents of softening edging.
“Why don’t we go further this year and change the legal position of the coronavirus,” he said in an interview with Yomiuri. “As the default policy is to hospitalize those who are infected, the burden on medical institutions and health centers is We must be careful with omicron, but if drugs and vaccines can prevent the disease from becoming serious, we could treat Covid like seasonal flu.
Find common ground
A larger shift in how Japan deals with the virus could alter public perceptions of the threat of infection, as well as help diffuse the impact of future mutations.
Currently, Japan relies on around 450 public health centers to contact, trace and hospitalize people with the virus. Space is limited because hospitals, especially small or private ones, may refuse to take patients unless they are seriously ill.
Although deaths have remained low in Japan throughout the pandemic, despite the country’s large elderly population, dozens of people have still been turned away from hospitals in previous waves. Hundreds of people were left to die at home without seeing a doctor.
Some countries have already started to see the peak of omicron waves. In South Africa, where the variant was first reported nearly two months ago, the death rate from omicrons has reached 15% of the delta wave, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. The strain causes less severe disease, even in those who are not vaccinated or have had no previous infection, according to the latest South African research.
Japanese authorities seem aware that forcing infected people into hospitals or quarantines could do more harm than good. As health facilities continue to fill, Japan plans to impose a state of near-emergency in Tokyo and several other parts of the country from Friday, but demands for reduced bar and restaurant hours are not met. still not mandatory.
A panel of experts advising the Tokyo government raised its Covid-19 infection alert level to the highest of four levels, citing the possibility of social disruption on Thursday. The panel also raised the health system alert to the second highest level, saying it is time to limit normal medical care and focus on strengthening the system.
“We will stop the infection. We will not stop the society,” Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo, told reporters last week. “We have to do both.”
Financial difficulties weighed on Japan. The country’s economy is expected to grow 1.8% in 2021, compared to 5.9% globally. During the pandemic, Japan declared a state of emergency four more times, slowing the recovery of the world’s third-largest economy.
Japan has sent mixed messages about broader easing, in part because the previous administration was ousted for a slow response to infection control. Kishida’s administration may fear that the downgrade of the legal status of the virus may be perceived as weak. The dilution would also free the government from covering the cost of Covid hospital stays, placing the burden of payment on patients, a potentially unpopular proposition.
The government has banned all new foreign arrivals until the end of February – one of the most aggressive travel responses adopted globally due to omicron – but has also reduced the self-isolation period for contacts narrow from 14 days to 10 days. For medical workers, the rules were scrapped entirely last week.
While Western countries fear that removing Covid stigma will discourage people from taking precautions like mask-wearing, that’s unlikely in Japan. Broad public cooperation and cultural norms meant that people never stopped sanitizing their hands or wearing masks in public, even when new cases dropped.
During virus outbreaks, many people voluntarily canceled travel plans, perhaps partly explaining why the country has escaped a high death toll. Nearly 80% of residents are fully immunized with two shots, making Japan one of the most immunized countries among developed nations.
As the country ponders its next move, Kishida signaled that his government’s priority is to find common ground.
“The virus mutates many times and we have to take this into account,” he told reporters last Thursday. “We can’t keep changing status every time the virus changes shape.”
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