Japan Plays Catch-Up With Rushed Virus State-of-Emergency Bill

Isabel Reynolds

(Bloomberg) -- Two months after Japan confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is finally setting up a legal framework to let him declare a nationwide state of emergency if the outbreak worsens.

Like many of Abe’s responses to the crisis -- from restricting visitors from virus-hit areas to bolstering the local mask supply -- the introduction of the state-of-emergency legislation comes long after other leaders took similar action. The delays have fueled doubts over whether Japan is prepared to act decisively enough to manage the Tokyo Olympics in July, the world’s largest sporting event.

“Japan didn’t have a legal system in place to tackle this properly,” said Yu Uchiyama, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. “Why is that only happening now? They should have done it much sooner.”

While Japan hasn’t had a surge in coronavirus cases seen in places like South Korea, its approach so far has been marked by bureaucratic roadblocks and sudden reversals. The Abe government waited until Feb. 1 to bar visitors with symptoms, tested only a tiny fraction of possible cases in the initial days, and moved suddenly last week to quarantine arrivals from China, after the pace of infections there had begun to slow.

Abe announced a second package to help support the economy Tuesday, but funds are set to come from reserves, rather than extra spending.

The delays may be partly explained by a political system that places a high value on consensus and the measured judgment of ministry bureaucrats. Still, others blame a complacency after Abe’s success in neutralizing opposition both inside and outside his government over his record-setting seven years in power.

“They didn’t have a sense of crisis,” said former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who oversaw what was seen as a successful response to a novel influenza outbreak in 2009. “This is a long-running administration and they have the feeling that they can keep their grip on power whatever happens.”

Risks for Abe have increased as new coronavirus cases pop-up around the country, recession signals mount and Abe’s poll numbers slip to lows not seen since July 2018. The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention issued Abe’s government a rare rebuke last month over its handling of a cruise ship quarantine, with about one-in-five passengers and crew being confirmed infected and seven dying.

Excluding the more than 700 people infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Japan had reported 567 cases as of early Wednesday, including 12 deaths, although health experts warn the country’s limited testing masks the true size of the outbreak. The disease has infected more than 110,000 worldwide, leading to speculation that the Summer Olympics might have to be postponed, held without spectators or even canceled.

The bill approved by the cabinet and submitted to parliament Tuesday is an update of legislation passed in the aftermath of a flu outbreak in 2009-10. Abe is seeking to push the bill through by the end of the week, Kyodo News said.

In contrast, Italy declared a state of emergency on Jan. 31 after confirming its first two cases, while multiple U.S. states have also done so in recent days.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party faces difficulties with any legislation seen as potentially limiting human rights, in a country still haunted by its militarist past. Abe may be reluctant to embolden the opposition by grabbing extra powers, especially with his support rate slipping.

“I will take the effect on individual rights into full consideration when making a decision,” Abe told parliament Monday about any emergency declarations. A poll published by national broadcaster NHK showed voters about evenly divided on whether Abe was doing a good job of tackling the virus. His support rate slipped two percentage points to 43%.

The legislation comes as Japan marks the anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that left about 20,000 people dead or missing. The then-ruling Democratic Party lost control of government in 2012 after widespread criticism of its response, opening the door for Abe and the LDP to take back power.

The delays may prove costly for Japan. Visitors from China hit a record of more than 920,000 in January, even as the outbreak reached a crisis point in Wuhan and spread around the country. Before Japan banned arrivals from the hardest hit province of Hubei on Feb. 1, travelers from the Wuhan area were believed to have infected numerous people in Japan.

Japan’s government had success in dealing with the influenza outbreaks a decade ago -- the death rate then was low compared with other countries. Abe warned Monday of the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, even though the country had so far suffered no explosion in infections.

“It was really tough 11 years ago, but the lessons have not been learned, and that’s why I’m angry,” said Masuzoe, the former minister. “It’s been a total failure.”

(Updates with second spending package)

--With assistance from Takashi Hirokawa, Karen Leigh and Kana Nishizawa.

To contact the reporter on this story: Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at ireynolds1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Jon Herskovitz

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