Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga yesterday vowed to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control and hold the already postponed Olympic Games this summer with ample protection.
In a speech opening a new session of parliament, Suga said that his government would revise laws to make disease prevention measures enforceable with penalties and compensation.
Early in the pandemic, Japan was able to keep its caseload manageable with nonbinding requests for businesses to close or operate with social distancing, and for people to stay at home, but recent weeks have seen several highs in new cases per day, in part blamed on eased attitudes toward disease prevention measures.
Suga said that the government is aiming to start vaccinations by late next month.
“In order to restore sense of safety, I will get the coronavirus pandemic, which has raged worldwide and is now severely affecting Japan, under control as soon as possible,” Suga said. “I will stand at the front line of the battle, while I get the people’s cooperation.”
Suga pledged to host the Olympics in the summer as “a proof of human victory against the coronavirus.”
“We will have full anti-infection measures in place and proceed with preparations with a determination to achieve the Games that can deliver hope and courage throughout the world,” he said.
Polls show that about 80 percent of Japanese think the Olympics will not or should not happen.
Suga said vaccines are the “clincher” of the pandemic and hopes to start vaccinations when the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare approves the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, one of three foreign suppliers to Japan, by late next month, but the pace of inoculation could be slow, as surveys have shown many people have safety concerns.
Suga also said in his speech, just two days ahead of US president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, that he hoped to meet Biden soon to further strengthen the Japan-US alliance, and to cooperate on the pandemic, climate change and other key issues.
Japan yesterday had reported 330,978 infections and 4,306 deaths from COVID-19, numbers that have surged, though they are still far smaller than many other nations of equivalent size.
Suga on Jan. 7 issued a state of emergency for the Tokyo area and expanded the step on Wednesday last week as the surge in infections strained medical systems, but he has been criticized for being slow to put disease prevention measures in place after the surge began, apparently due to his government’s reluctance to further hurt the economy.
He kept the state-subsidized “Go To” travel promotion campaign active until late last month, which critics say misguided the public when people needed to practice more restraint.
Suga yesterday made no mention of the “Go To” campaign, which was designed to support the tourism industry devastated by the pandemic.
The state of emergency — covering more than half of Japan’s 127 million people — asks bars and restaurants to close by 8pm, employees to have 70 percent of their staff work from home and residents to avoid leaving home for nonessential purposes.
It is set to end on Feb. 7, but could be extended.
One of the proposed changes to disease prevention measures would legalize compensation for business owners who cooperate with such measures, while introducing fines or imprisonment for those who defy them.
The government also plans to revise the infectious disease law to allow authorities to penalize patients who refuse to be hospitalized or cooperate with health officials, Japanese Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of disease prevention measures, said on a TV talk show on Sunday.
Health officials believe a growing number of people are defying instructions from health officials to self-isolate or be hospitalized, spreading COVID-19 and making contact tracing difficult.
Opposition lawmakers and experts are cautious about punishment for patients, citing human rights concerns.
They also say such punishment is pointless when hospitals are running out of beds and forcing hundreds of people to wait at home.
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