The number of deaths and infections from the global coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, is now higher outside than in China, where the outbreak began, across the country. In Italy yesterday the deaths toll (3405) exceeded that in China. Also, Iran and South Korea were among the countries most affected by the novel virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Japan has recorded 814 cases since March 17. Even taking into account the 712 cases of the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which has been moored in the port of Yokohama for over three weeks as a virus spread among passengers and crew, the cases in Japan are just over 900 and only 32 deaths. Many have wondered why the rate of infection in Japan is so relatively low despite its proximity to China, and above all, if weaker strains of Covid-19 exist which would explain why even in Italy only some regions have been more affected than others, or because Italy has recorded more deaths than China.
According to Hiroaki Richard Watanabe of the University of Sheffield, the main answer seems to be that Japan has not conducted extensive tests on the coronavirus, especially compared to countries like South Korea and Italy, which have done many tests. Watanabe explains that this may have to do with Japan’s policy-making system. The Japanese prime minister and Cabinet Office increased their power to make policy as a result of administrative reforms since the 1990s, while the power of bureaucrats and MPs declined to some extent. Japan’s policy towards the coronavirus seems to be centred on discussions at expert meetings under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW). Although the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played a role in making decisions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by convening several meetings, those decisions were based on the MHLW’s expert policy recommendations.
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Fewer tests, fewer cases, fewer deaths recorded for Covid-19. The same policy has also been applied by other countries, such as Tunisia, where the number of people in quarantine are over 5600, but just over 600 tests conducted. Of these, only 39 were political, with an incidence of 6.38%. Even in the case of Tunisia only one death has been ascertained for Coronavirus, but there could be other deaths of people who had not been subjected to the storm, or unaware of having been infected by the new virus. Compared to the number of tests conducted in South Korea, more than 248,000 so far, the number in Japan has been just over 10,000. The small number of tests was due to the slow administrative answer, which was also seen in the poor crisis management of the Diamond Princess case.
Other factors, Watanabe says, may have contributed to the relatively low rate of coronavirus infection in Japan, such as the government’s recommendation to close schools until early spring break and cancellation of sporting events and concerts. However, these measures have also been adopted by other governments around the world and their impact is difficult to measure. And Abe’s decision to close schools without consulting his own party, opposition parties, governors and education committees of Japan’s prefectures has been severely criticized.
By the way, the reasons for choosing to reduce the number of tests for COVID-19 on the population many including avoiding the spread of panic between citizens, the lack of means and sufficient tests to manage the emergency. For Watanabe, the suspicion was that the Japanese government had conducted only a small number of tests in Japan to hide the scope and severity of the infection, partly due to the Abe administration’s determination to hold the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. We should not forget that the Japanese government has already learned a lot about crisis management since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 even if there is still the problem of insufficient coordination between government ministries and between the government and the identified private sector which led to the collapse of stock prices and had a catastrophic impact on the Japanese economy and society. In light of all this, it seems that we can rule out the possibility of a weaker virus in Japan than in other countries, but that the differences in COVID-19 data between one nation and another depend on the number of tests conducted, as well as the management of the emergency by each Government.