Japan declares state of emergency for Tokyo

TOKYO (AP) — Japan declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and three nearby areas yesterday as coronavirus cases continued to surge, hitting a daily record of 2,447 in the capital.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga issued the declaration at the government task force for the coronavirus. It kicks in today until February 7, and centres around asking eateries to close at 8pm and people to stay home and not mingle in crowds.

The declaration carries no penalties. But it works as a strong request while Japan juggles to keep the economy going.

Shopping malls and schools will remain open. Movie theatres, museums and other events will be asked to reduce attendance. Places that defy the request will get publicised on a list, while those that comply will be eligible for aid, according to officials.

Coronavirus cases have been surging in Japan after the year-end and New Year’s holidays.

Shigeru Omi, the doctor who heads the government panel on coronavirus measures, described the latest wave as “explosive”, requiring the emergency declaration.

Shoppers wearing face masks at Tsukiji Outer Market in Tokyo. PHOTO: AP

Tokyo has logged record daily cases for two straight days, after 1,591 on Wednesday. Nationwide, cases have been growing steadily by more than 5,000 a day.

Some experts said Japan should have acted sooner, and the government campaign to promote travel through discounts was a mistake.

Opinion on having eateries close early is mixed. Places could simply get more crowded in earlier hours.

Infectious disease expert Dr Hiroshi Nishiura said the curve will be mitigated but will continue to rise. He believes more drastic action is needed.

No one thinks COVID-19 will be squelched to zero. That would take a vaccine, expected to start next month in Japan, with health and essential workers first. The rollout is likely to take months.

Keeping COVID-19 infections under control is imperative for Japan with the Tokyo Olympics set for July. Japan Inc has a lot riding on the Games. Politicians have repeatedly stressed they must go on despite an increasingly doubtful public.

A similar emergency was issued in April last year through late May, which was eventually widened to apply nationwide.

The effort was largely effective. Japanese generally tend to follow orders from authorities, even without the threat of penalties. Almost everyone has been wearing masks.

A legal change is needed to allow for penalties in emergency declarations, and such a move is set to be considered in Parliament. A strict lockdown, like ones in Europe, is not being considered.

SMBC Nikko Securities Chief Economist Yoshimasa Maruyama said the economic damage from the declaration will be limited, with real gross domestic product growth pushed down by 0.2 per cent for the first quarter of 2021.

Other economists are projecting a slightly greater negative impact on gross domestic product (GDP).