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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government is facing increasing criticism, including from older residents, over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as infections on Sunday crossed the 2,000 threshold for the fourth consecutive day.
The country saw 2,066 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the total caseload to some 148,000, with more than one-quarter of them recorded in the capital Tokyo.
The unhappiness is partly driven by a perception that the “Go To Travel” domestic tourism campaign, as well as other initiatives to restart the economy, is to blame for a third wave of infections.
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“I’m not at all happy at how they are dealing with the situation,” said Shizuko Utsumi, 73, a retired teacher who lives in the city of Sapporo in Hokkaido, one of the regions with the fastest rising rates of infection.
“They tried to encourage people to travel with the ‘Go To Travel’ campaign and then to eat out with ‘Go To Eat’, but it was obvious what was going to happen,” she said.
“After people started coming to Hokkaido, we started getting more cases. I’ve heard it’s the same in Tokyo, Osaka and Okinawa, which were all popular with people making the most of the ‘Go To Travel’ campaign,” Utsumi added.
“I think they should have done more to limit it, and when we saw cases increasing in the popular places, they should have shut it down much faster.”
A poll conducted over the weekend by the Nikkei newspaper indicated that Suga’s approval rating fell five percentage points from the previous survey held a month before. The leader had enjoyed a bump in popularity after taking over from Shinzo Abe in September, but his support had since fallen to 58 per cent.
Most significantly, almost half the 993 survey respondents said they disapproved of the government’s pandemic handling, up 13 percentage points.
The travel campaign was launched in July by the Abe administration to some criticism, and Suga continued supporting the programme even as Japan saw a resurgence of infections.
It was not until last Friday that officials from the Covid-19 task force decided to remove the hardest-hit regions, including Osaka and Sapporo, from all the “Go To” schemes. But some citizens pointed out that travellers would simply go elsewhere, raising the risk of new hotspots emerging.
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Utsumi, the retired teacher, said she was “very worried” about the situation in Sapporo. She was taking all the recommended precautions, including wearing a mask in public, washing her hands frequently, avoiding public transport, and shopping during off-peak hours, she said.
“But it’s still very frightening for me and my friends,” Utsumi said. “I’ve had my flu injection and I have to return to the clinic next week. Going there is always quite worrying because it’s just the sort of place where the virus could be.”
According to Sapporo’s last census in 2015, one-quarter of its nearly 2 million population were people aged 65 and above.
Makoto Watanabe, a professor based in Sapporo, said it appeared more people in the country were concerned about the pandemic now than when it first broke out earlier this year.
“People are nervous. They are saying that the attempt to keep the travel and entertainment industries afloat is costing us now,” said Watanabe, a professor of communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.
The widely-held belief is that as winter sets in across northern Japan, things would get far worse before they get better. Yet there are some who choose to ignore the advice of experts.
“From what I can see, it’s mostly younger people,” he said. “It is almost as if they have become accustomed to this situation and they are refusing to endure the inconvenience to their lives any longer.
“For people in their 20s, we know there is a reduced risk of them showing the symptoms of the virus or of becoming seriously ill, but they can still pass it on,” he said. “For older people, the risk is far higher. And that is what I’m worried about.”
Kazuhiro Tateda, president of the Japan Association of Infectious Diseases and a member of Suga’s emergency health advisory group, said his panel would this week recommend that authorities reintroduce restrictions on dining and drinking out in major cities and curtail the “Go To” campaigns.
“The next three weeks are absolutely critical and we have to take serious steps to stop people from going out and going drinking,” Tateda said.
“If we can do that, we believe new infections can plateau and even begin to go down,” he said. “I hope that is what happens ahead of the New Year holidays.”
But there was a chance the Suga administration might not adopt the panel’s full recommendations, or that people could also ignore the new rules, he said.
It is possible the government will adopt a watered-down version of the panel’s recommendations as it attempts to prop up the entertainment sector and enable people to have a festive holiday season.
Alternatively, the government could impose stricter limitations on the public, but a significant number of people could ignore the rules or find a way of otherwise getting around them.
Japan’s surge in cases reflects a trend seen in elsewhere the region, with Hong Kong on Monday recording 76 new Covid-19 cases.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a new round of restrictions and ordered civil servants to work from home. Earlier, the government had shut all schools until after the Christmas holidays, to deal with the city’s fourth virus wave.
In South Korea, the government is battling one of its largest waves of infections yet, fuelled by small outbreaks in the densely populated capital city of Seoul and surrounding areas. The country recorded 438 new cases on Sunday, bringing the country’s total to 34,201.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg, Reuters, Kyodo
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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