Japan Fears Country on ‘Brink of the Brink’ of Virus Surge

Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro
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Japan Fears Country on ‘Brink of the Brink’ of Virus Surge

(Bloomberg) -- Japan is bracing for an explosive surge in coronavirus infections cases, senior government officials said, while continuing to resist calls to declare a state of emergency to fight the pandemic.

“We are really continuing on the brink of the brink,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters Friday in Tokyo, one of several fresh warnings about the potential for a more widespread outbreak. Nishimura said that the government was concerned about the capital, where confirmed infections have more than doubled in a week to almost 700. Tokyo saw its biggest one-day tally of 97 on Thursday.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come under increasing pressure to declare a state of emergency to contain the disease’s spread, with Rakuten Inc. founder Hiroshi Mikitani joining those urging such action. Abe told parliament Friday that the situation didn’t yet warrant an emergency declaration, but said he wouldn’t hesitate to do so when the time comes.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said an emergency declaration twinned with economic aid would be effective. Abe has agreed to handouts of 300,000 yen ($2,780) for households whose income has been hit by the crisis, public broadcaster NHK said, without saying where it got the information.

Speaking to reporters, Koike laid out some details of what a state of emergency would look like in the capital, saying she would ask people to avoid going out unnecessarily and to work from home where possible. By contrast with the national government’s low-key approach, she said she had enlisted celebrities including popular Japanese YouTuber Hikakin to help get the message out.

Medical staff, supermarket workers, bank tellers and people operating the stock exchange would remain on duty even under an emergency, Koike added.

While Japan was one of the first countries outside of the original epicenter in neighboring China to confirm a coronavirus infection, it has fared better than most, with about 2,600 reported cases as of Friday. That’s the lowest tally of any Group of Seven country, although Japan might be finding fewer mild cases because it has conducted a relatively small number of tests.

Due to civil liberties protections enshrined in Japan’s postwar constitution, an emergency declaration wouldn’t give local governments power to clear the streets as China and some European countries have done. Still, it would increase their ability to procure essential materials and urge people to stay home.

Besides Mikitani, who is one of Japan’s most prominent business leaders, Koike has also pushed for an emergency declaration. Hirofumi Yoshida -- governor of the country’s second most populous city Osaka -- said earlier this week that an emergency should be declared for his own prefecture as well as Tokyo, the Asahi newspaper reported.

Abe urged people to cooperate with government recommendations to avoid more severe measures, telling parliament that 62 people infected with the virus were in serious condition as of Wednesday. The country has reported 63 deaths.

Japan is at risk of a deepening recession due to the pandemic, a sales tax hike in October and the postponement of the Olympic Games. In the three months starting in April, some analysts see the economy shrinking more than 10%, the biggest plunge since Abe took the helm in 2012. If the Tokyo metropolitan area, which accounts for about one-third of the economy, heads into a lockdown, the damage would get even worse.

Nishimura, the economy minister, also said the government was aiming to decide early next week on a stimulus package to support jobs and businesses. He said the government was considering cash handouts, as well as a variety of other fiscal, tax and deregulatory measures.

(Updates with cash handout report, Tokyo governor comments)

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