Back in January, when the Wuhan, China coronavirus broke out, it didn’t make it to the front page of newspapers, in print or virtual form. Today, January feels like a lifetime away. Like it or not, people around the world have adapted to the new normal – staying at home, frequent hand washing, and social distancing.
It was different for Japan though. While 2020 was still in its infancy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was already planning measures for dealing with the coronavirus onset. The reasons could be the country’s proximity to China, and its having the second COVID 19 case outside of China.
Before the lunar new year came, PM Abe had summoned his ministers to a meeting to come up with measures to prevent further entry and spread of the unnamed disease. Among the measures passed was the naming of the illness to the list of designated infectious diseases, which allows forced hospitalization and forced leave from work, with medical expenses to come from government funds. The government also set up selective testing and quarantine stations.
Japanese nationals who were stranded in Wuhan were not left out. Their repatriation began in January. All in all, it took five chartered flights to evacuate more than 800 citizens and their families. Aboard these flights on their way to Wuhan were thousands of masks and protective gear donated by government units and local groups in Japan.
The virus-infected Diamond Princess cruise ship that Japan allowed to dock in its port off Yokohama on Feb. 3 was a crisis that the Japanese government had to manage, on top of the COVID 19 outbreak on land. The quarantine on board of its more than 3,700 passengers and crew was widely criticized by the Western media and both foreign and local specialists. Admittedly, it wasn’t perfect, being the first case of an infected vessel with no precedent to go by.
Tragically, the Diamond Princess wasn’t the last. Other cruise ships followed suit. The Grand Princess and MS Zaandam cruises had COVID 19 positive cases and had to cut short their voyages.
Unlike their sister ship that Japan took in, the two vessels had to stay at sea after being barred from entering ports in San Francisco and Port Everglades in southern Florida. Grand Princess and Zaandam belong to American-owned companies, as did the Diamond Princess. The experts who were quite vocal in their criticisms on Japan are staying mum this time.
COVID 19 cases in Japan have seen a spike recently. There are now 2,100 cases and 66 deaths across Japan as of March 31, according to NHK. Tokyo, the country’s capital, has a population of about 14 million and has more than 500 cases, prompting its governor, Koike Yuriko, to ask the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency.
For Japan’s population that is about a third of the US’, that number doesn’t really look alarming to outsiders. But given Japan’s cognizance of a forthcoming public health crisis and its early management, the slow rise in the number of cases is not surprising, even as it had to deal with a cruise ship that should not have been its responsibility.
How did Japan do it?
PM Abe’s iron fist and democratic approaches
On Feb. 27, Abe announced that all schools will have to close. Amid objections from parents and oppositionists, he admitted not consulting experts because time was of the essence. This move will protect students’ health by preventing the spread of infection that is highly likely in crowds.
Travel bans took effect early, starting with barring entry from travelers coming from Hubei province in China. Quarantines for China and South Korea incoming travelers followed. The latest travel ban covers 73 countries and territories, including the US, UK and most of Europe.
The government requested but did not order organizers to suspend events and gatherings to avoid close contact with people. Workers were encouraged but not forced to work from home.
Testing for the COVID 19 used the polymerase chain reaction and was selective, testing only those with specified symptoms. This approach was to prevent a breakdown of the country’s health system and a shortage of equipment and medications. Critics argue that limited testing has resulted in deceptive information regarding Japan’s number of cases. But the national guidelines for testing were drawn up by 11 health and medical experts in a meeting chaired by Dr. Wakita Takaji, director of the National Institute for Infectious Diseases.
The politeness of the Japanese people is evident in their greeting styles. They bow and keep a respectful distance, unlike other countries where kissing and handshaking are the usual ways. Social distancing was already practiced before the phrase was coined.
The Japanese adhere to strict personal hygiene and sanitation practices. It is not uncommon to see them wearing masks on streets and in trains, especially when they have respiratory ailments or allergies.
Japan’s innate innovativeness
In medicine and engineering, Japan is known for being a trailblazer. In its quest to treat the coronavirus patients, it used favipiravir, the generic component of Avigan, a flu medicine produced by Japanese pharmaceutical company Fujifilm Toyama. Studies have shown that it is the most promising drug thus far, and may be responsible for Japan’s high rate of recovery cases.
As the world copes with the coronavirus catastrophe, it’s time to unite and set aside the politicking and competing. Give credit where it is due, or learn from the lessons of others. Prime Minister Abe extended a helping hand to the Diamond Princess, regardless of nationality or alliances. As an example of showing responsibility and solidarity, world leaders can follow the lead and beat the scourge that has fallen upon us all.