Japan is gambling that it can control the spread of coronavirus without a full lockdown as Shinzo Abe declared a “state of emergency”.
The prime minister’s declaration will give governors in seven prefectures the power to request business closures to increase social distancing. It follows a rise in the number of coronavirus cases in Japan to more than 4,000 nationwide.
But the closures are not compulsory and many shops, restaurants and factories will be allowed to stay open to keep the economy ticking over, raising questions about how effective the new measures will be.
“Even with the state of emergency declaration, the expert opinion is we do not need to lock down our cities like they have done abroad,” said Mr Abe, who pledged a ¥39tn ($359bn) package of public support equivalent to about 7 per cent of annual economic output. “As a government, we aim to minimise the impact on the economy and society.”
The state of emergency will initially apply to seven urban prefectures that make up about half of Japan’s economy — Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka — but government officials said the list may expand. It will last for one month, unless renewed.
Mr Abe’s experiment will be closely watched by other nations because it will test whether a country can control Covid-19 without a full lockdown, despite having a significant number of cases and no mass testing for coronavirus.
“It’s very hard to know if the state of emergency is justified or whether it will be effective because Japan hasn’t done the testing,” said Masahiro Kami, head of the Medical Governance Research Institute. Japan has conducted about 45,000 tests for the virus, far less than South Korea, which has administered about almost half a million tests.
The Tokyo metropolitan government is expected to request the closure of gyms, theatres, cinemas, cram schools, karaoke boxes, museums, libraries, department stores, shopping centres, bars and night clubs, among other businesses.
But a range of facilities considered essential will be allowed to stay open. They include supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, hotels, factories, restaurants, railways and bus services, allowing a much wider range of economic activity than in other countries.
The public will be asked to stay home unless it is essential to go out, but commuting to work is an acceptable reason to leave the house. With schools having closed more than a month ago, there is already some hygiene fatigue in Japan. Dr Kami was doubtful that the declaration would make a big difference to public behaviour.
Even with only a partial lockdown, the state of emergency is expected to hit Japan’s economy hard, prompting Mr Abe to launch Japan’s largest stimulus package ever — amounting to about 20 per cent of gross domestic product if loan guarantees are included.
The government will make direct cash payments of ¥300,000 ($2,756) to households that have lost income in the crisis.
“This will be one of the largest economic support packages worldwide, with a record level of financing support, ¥26tn in deferred social security payments for the first time in this country, ¥6tn in direct cash distributions and an unprecedented overall scale of ¥39tn in public spending,” said Mr Abe.
Kiichi Murashima, an economist at Citi in Tokyo, said the package was crucial but it was “more economic relief than economic stimulus” and what happened to output would depend on how quickly the virus was brought under control.
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