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Japan losing patience over COVID-19 response

April 15, 2020

Prime Minister Abe has been accused by critics of prioritizing the economy and the Olympic Games over the well-being of the Japanese public. As his approval rating falls, the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing.

Japan losing patience with government over COVID-19 response
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/K. SAto

The Japanese public appears to be losing patience with the government over its dithering response to the coronavirus. Along with a new spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths, there are increasingly stark indications that Japan's health authorities are struggling to stay on top of the outbreak.  

More than 80% of people responding to a survey conducted on Monday by Kyodo News said the government's declaration of a state of emergency in the nation's biggest cities on April 7 came too late.

Read more: Coronavirus: Can Japan's 'soft lockdown' stop COVID-19?

The government's overall approval rating fell more than 5% in the poll to marginally above 40%.

An overwhelming 82% of those surveyed also stressed that the state needs to provide financial support to companies that are struggling due to a government recommendation to halt operations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has so far resisted applying financial aid measures.

Public anger, and fear, is also being stoked by alarming reports from the frontlines in the fight against the virus. 

There were 482 new cases reported on Tuesday, bringing the nationwide total to 8,173. Nineteen people died of the virus on Tuesday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 174. 

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Beds full, supplies running low

Nine of Japan's 47 prefectures are close to filling all the emergency hospital beds set aside for coronavirus cases, according to national broadcaster NHK, including Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka, which are under state of emergency designations. 

The city government of Osaka on Tuesday issued a plea for residents to donate waterproof coats to hospitals as health workers are running out of protective clothing, an indication that the coronavirus is spreading faster than anticipated and provoking further criticism of the central government's response. 

In a press conference on Tuesday, Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui said doctors and nurses at a number of hospitals are forced to wear trash bags when they treat patients. The city has requested donations of unused raincoats and asked local manufacturers of similar clothing to step up production and sell equipment to the city at fair market rates. 

Read more: Coronavirus: Are Japan's school closures a political move to save the Olympics?

"The government has simply not been sufficiently serious about how it needs to conduct itself in times like this," said Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Kyoto's Doshisha University, adding that fear of making mistakes keeps officials from acting decisively to avert an even worse crisis.

"People are angry," said Hama, adding that Abe "does not understand" that ordinary people are "hurting."

"They are living in anxiety and are suffering deep economic hardship."

"They are also realizing that businesses are being protected instead of ordinary people, but particularly businesses that form the support base of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party," she said.

"While those sectors are receiving support, mom-and-pop corner stores, small companies and ordinary people are not getting nearly enough assistance."

PM Abe has been accused by critics of prioritizing the economy and the Olympics over the public well-being
PM Abe has been accused by critics of prioritizing the economy and the Olympics over the public well-beingImage: Imago Images/Kyodo

Olympic Games were the top priority

Abe has also been criticized for delaying the announcement of the state of emergency until after the International Olympic Committee concluded that this summer's Tokyo Olympic Games and the Paralympics could not possibly go ahead.

"There is no leadership being demonstrated in Japan today," said Mieko Nakabayashi, a former politician with the Democratic Party of Japan and now a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University. "Certainly, Abe is not exercising any leadership, and I would say that this crisis has shown up his lack of a spine."

Read more: Tokyo 2020 postponement poses Herculean financial challenge

Nakabayashi says the government was desperate not to jeopardize Tokyo's hosting of the Olympics, which were due to open in late July, as the prime minister had staked much of his economic reputation on the massive windfall that hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors would bring, while the games were also to be used to buff the image and reputation of Japanese companies. 

"The Olympics were Abe's last way of salvaging his 'Abenomics' policies," said Nakabayashi, referring to the ambitious economic revitalization measures unveiled by the prime minister in the run-up to his election in 2012, but which have since foundered. 

"The economy has not been growing nearly as fast as they predicted and the Olympics were meant to bring in enough tourists that he would be able to declare his policies to have been a resounding success before stepping down as prime minister," she said. 

And there is a possibility that the situation might become even worse for the Japanese government.

Organizers of the Olympics admitted in a press conference on Tuesday that there are no additional fallback plans in place if the coronavirus pandemic has not abated by this time next year. Should that happen, the decision may be to scrap the event entirely. 

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea