Japan’s Abe Warns Virus Surge in Invoking Emergency

Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro
Japan’s Abe Warns Virus Surge in Invoking Emergency

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Tokyo could be facing as many as 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in a month if no action is taken as he declared a state of emergency in the capital and its surrounding regions.

In what Abe said was the country’s greatest economic crisis since the end of World War Two, he declared a one-month emergency period from April 7 that will cover Osaka, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures as well as the capital. The move hands powers to local governments to try to contain the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, including by urging residents to stay at home.

“Apart from essential services, I want all office workers to work from home,” Abe told a news conference adding if no intervention takes place, infections could reach about 80,000 in a month. Facilities meant for the now-delayed Tokyo Olympics will be re-purposed to house about 800 people with mild infections and the government has arranged for housing in thousands of hotel rooms in Tokyo and Osaka, he said.

According to experts’ calculations, if people reduce contact by at least 70% or 80%, in two weeks the increase in infections will peak out, Abe said. A recent spike in infections -- reaching a total of about 4,000 from less than 400 just a month ago -- has sparked concerns Japan is headed for a crisis on the levels seen in the U.S. and several countries in Europe.

Despite the warning, though, life was little changed for many on the first day after the declaration. Japan’s Mainichi newspaper published a series of photos showing crowded conditions on morning commuter trains.

Abe said essential public services will operate as normal and he wants businesses to reduce numbers in the workplace by about 70%. He called on people to stop going to bars and nightclubs, adding Japan’s measures are not like the lockdowns in places such as Europe. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told a separate news conference that on Friday she’ll announce what businesses the city will request to close.

The areas covered by the declaration represent about half of Japan’s economy, deepening fears that output will plunge by as much as 20% in the current quarter. By pushing such a large part of the nation’s output and consumption toward what may be seen as a “soft-lockdown,” Abe risks contributing toward an economic contraction some analysts say will be bigger than the hit from the global financial crisis.

Japanese companies were preparing to close retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and offices, while expanding work-from-home policies under the order. Critical businesses in manufacturing and technology will keep operating.

Worries about the virus hit close to Abe when his cabinet office said Tuesday that one of its officials was confirmed to have been infected.

An emergency declaration enables local officials to take measures such as ordering the cancellation of events, restricting use of facilities such as schools and movie theaters and appropriating land or buildings for temporary medical facilities. The announcement comes after pressure from the public and the medical community.

As with many laws in Japan, there are no penalties associated with breaching instructions, except in the case of concealing supplies after the government orders them to be handed over. Even so, businesses are likely to further cooperate in closing shops and restaurants, while more residents are expected to stay indoors.

Japan still has the fewest confirmed infections among Group of Seven leading countries but the numbers have shot up in recent days, triggering pleas from medical professionals to take more stringent measures to prevent a collapse of the health care system. Given Japan’s limited testing, some speculate the real total may be far greater.

Abe told a parliamentary committee Tuesday an emergency period lasting through May 6 had been decided upon taking into account the incubation period of the virus and the need to check the effect of measures like asking people to stay at home.

“Whether we can avoid an explosive increase in infections, whether we can rescue one more seriously ill person from the clutches of death, whether we can protect your beloved families -- all of this depends on your actions,” Abe said. “Once again, I ask for your cooperation.”

(Corrects story published April 8 to show that Tokyo, not Japan, could be facing 80,000 confirmed cases)

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