Just like the Olympics, which ended a fortnight ago, the Paralympics is set to commence amid a drumbeat of doom. Japan appears to be in the middle of a Covid renaissance, with around 5,000 new cases a day in Tokyo. The games will take place, like the Olympics, in a ‘state of emergency’ that now covers 84 per cent of the country.
But how serious is the situation, and what exactly does 5,000 daily cases mean? Like much of the vaccinated world, the majority of the afflicted this time round appear to be younger people and overall deaths in Japan remain extremely low.
The fear then is not of huge numbers of Covid fatalities but of the health care system being overwhelmed. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has shown signs of being of a lockdown-sceptic persuasion, has been trying to move the debate in the direction of additional capacity and better triage rather than further restrictions. But he is having limited success: attempts to instigate a system where only the seriously ill are admitted to hospital has proved controversial, with doctors protesting that mild Covid symptoms can quickly become serious.
Suga’s weapon of choice, the state of emergency (we are in our fourth) is rapidly losing its power. While not quite lockdown-in-name-only, as the implications for the hospitality and travel industry have been grave, the states of emergency have, in truth, been no more than an irritation for the majority here. Official guidelines are not backed by much enforcement, most businesses are operating as normal and it’s all a far cry from the extreme curtailing of freedoms seen elsewhere.
But that may be about to change. Regional governors are now calling on Prime Minister Suga to legislate for additional powers and to instigate a ‘London-style lockdown’. Suga appears loath to do that — but does he have the strength to resist? The PM has appeared desperately tired of late with several doddery Biden-esque moments. If his appearing to be asleep during the Olympic opening ceremony was forgivable, failing to rise to his feet when the emperor stood up to make his speech was not. He also skipped parts of his speech at the Hiroshima bomb memorial ceremony (by mistake) and was late for the equivalent Nagasaki event (only one minute, but this is Japan).
The media are certainly adding to his woes. Although the state broadcaster NHK has just started giving a more detailed breakdown of the age profile of the cases, up until now we have been bombarded with just the raw scary numbers. Voices of moderation have been drowned out or cowed into silence by the constant focus on the most emotive stories, such as the tragic case of a pregnant woman in Kashiwa, who tested positive but was turned away from hospital because her symptoms were mild. She developed complications, gave birth at home and lost the baby.
The atmosphere of ever-present threat is reinforced by the almost unanimity of mask compliance here, which recalls Yukio Mishima’s description of Japanese life as a ‘reluctant masquerade’. Except now the masks are real and people don’t seem at all reluctant. Many people now wear two. Some add a visor for good measure.
It is at least as much a question of etiquette as of health, of saving, rather than exposing one’s, face. Just like the bowing marathons you sometimes see where senior citizens get locked in endless agonizing farewell bobbing, no one dares take off their mask and face accusations of endangering others. I asked an acquaintance, a Tokyo theatre director, if he could ever envisage the day when he wouldn’t wear a mask. After a long, hard think he said, ‘No, I can’t’.
There is much then for Suga to overcome if he staves off calls for stricter measures. And he needs to work fast. He faces two massive challenges in the next few months: the upcoming leadership election for his party and a general election. And if he had been hoping a successful (sort of) Olympics might give him a boost, that certainly hasn’t been reflected in the polls, where his government is setting new records for unpopularity.
The Paralympics may not have quite the same reputational or financial significance as the Olympics, but outbreaks of Covid among the athletes (there are already reports of 20 cases) have led to accusations of recklessness and incompetence. If he is forced into a significant change in policy, the effects will alter not only Suga’s future but Japan’s.
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