Japan is to impose a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures from Wednesday to try to stop the coronavirus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday night.
The state of emergency, which will be officially declared on Tuesday, applies to Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures.
More than 3,500 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in Japan and 85 have died – not a huge outbreak compared with some hot spots. But the numbers keep rising with particular alarm over the spread in Tokyo, which has more than 1,000 cases, including 83 new ones on Monday.
“Given the state of crisis on the medical front, the government was advised to prepare to declare the state of emergency,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
An emergency, which Abe said would last about a month, will give governors authority to call on people to stay at home and businesses to close, but will not be as restrictive as lockdowns in some other countries.
Even if a state of emergency is declared, citywide lockdowns, as seen in other countries hit hard by the coronavirus such as China and France, cannot be enforced under Japanese law. People will not be punished if they do not fall in line, neither can business activity be banned.
To prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed and other widespread impacts, governors of areas subject to the declaration will be able to tell people to only go outside on essential errands such as grocery shopping, or if they are key workers in areas such as health care and public transport.
Governors can restrict the use — and request temporary closure — of places where large groups gather such as schools, social welfare facilities, theaters, music venues and sports stadiums.
In the event that hospitals become overrun and new ones need to be quickly set up, as has been the case elsewhere, such as in China and the United States, governors will be able to expropriate private land and buildings if rejected by their owners and users for no legitimate reason.
They can also requisition medical supplies and food from companies that refuse to sell them and punish those that hoard or do not comply. They can force firms to help transport emergency goods.
Abe cannot declare a state of emergency at his own discretion. He needs input from an advisory panel of experts in medicine and public health who will determine whether such a move is required. He will meet with them on Tuesday.
Pressure had been mounting on the government to take the step although Abe had voiced concern about being too hasty, given the restrictions on movement and businesses it would entail.
Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Public Health at King’s College, London, said the emergency was too late given the explosive increase in cases in Tokyo.
“It should have been declared by April 1 at the latest,” he said.
CALL FOR CALM
Sounding an alarm over the high rate of cases that could not be traced, Tokyo Gov Yuriko Koike indicated last week that she would favor a state of emergency as a way to help her urge residents to abide by stronger social-distancing measures.
An expert on the government’s coronavirus panel said Japan could avoid an explosive rise by reducing person-to-person contact by 80%.
Under a law revised in March to cover the coronavirus, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency if the disease poses a “grave danger” to lives and if its rapid spread could have a big impact on the economy.
Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura called for calm saying there was no need for people in designated prefectures to flee to other regions, which could spread infections, NHK reported.
While Japan’s coronavirus epidemic is dwarfed by the 335,000 infections and more than 9,500 deaths in the United States alone, experts worry a sudden surge could overwhelm Japan’s medical system.
Governors in Tokyo and elsewhere have asked citizens to stay home on weekends, avoid crowds and evening outings, and work from home. That has had some effect, but not as much as many experts said was needed.
Abe gained the power to set in motion the process of establishing a state of emergency on March 13, when the Diet passed a revised version of a law enacted in response to the 2009 swine flu pandemic. The revision is effective for two years.
Recent requests by the prime minister for all schools to shut and for large sports and entertainment events to be canceled or postponed to prevent group transmission were made without the legal basis to enforce them.
One reason for the recent surge in infections is believed to be the importation of cases from abroad, prompting the government to implement an entry ban on foreign travelers that have recently been to one or more of 73 countries and regions.
© Thomson Reuters/KYODO