Japan’s COVID crisis

Recent developments suggest Japan is far from the worst of the virus

Japan’s ageing population are adjusting to a “new normal”.

— 3 minute read — By Sam Feierabend

At a time where international coronavirus response comparisons are at the forefront of people’s minds, the first week of August showed a worrying pattern for Japan’s COVID curve. With over 69,000 confirmed cases, Japan currently stands as the 44th worst-affected country in terms of infections. Whilst on the surface it appears the virus has been under control, over half of the country’s cases have come since the start of July, placing Japan firmly in the midst of a second wave.

It is important to understand why this second wave is so worrying for such a developed nation. Demographically, Japan has an ageing population (the oldest on average of any sovereign state) with around 28 percent of its population being 65 or over. With a virus that is known to be deadly to the elderly it is easy to see why this sudden rise in cases gives cause for concern. Some scientists within Japan think that a European strain of the virus has been present in the country from as early as March and could become the catalyst for a second spike.

Yet it is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response to the pandemic that has come under scrutiny from the public. Initially there was praise for his swift reaction to the outbreak, setting up an anti-coronavirus national task force in late January and shutting education centres in February. This response mitigated the severity of an initial wave, with the first peak peaking at 743 cases on 11th April. But it seems there is more to Japan’s low peak than first thought. Japanese media outlets have reported that people with mild symptoms of the virus had been refused diagnosis as the severity of their symptoms didn’t meet the government’s threshold for a test. By the end of February, only around 900 tests were being cited each day. Some cynics have suggested the low testing numbers were intended to downplay the number of infections, as the government faced the prospect of cancelling or postponing the Olympic Games, due to be held in Tokyo this summer. Inevitably, the Games have now been cancelled, but questions remain over Japan’s early testing scheme, especially when compared against the rigorous testing programmes carried out by other similarly developed nations.

It seemed the public had lost faith in Abe, with no state of emergency being declared at the start of August in the capital of Tokyo despite the sharp rise in cases. They have accused their leaders of prioritising the economy over public health, especially after pumping money into the transport industry to encourage tourism, arguably one of the largest contributors to the spread of COVID-19.

As the country reopens, one would expect an uptick in cases as people connect once more. Yet the shock announcement on the 28th August that Prime Minister Abe would resign immediately due to deteriorating health has lead to further questions: how Japan will respond to a second wave with a change in leadership. Crucially though as it stands, for whatever reason, deaths in Japan have not yet seen the increase that cases have, which is an encouraging sign.