Japan's Cabinet gives nod to draft 'state of emergency' measures

TOKYO (The Straits Times/ANN) - The measures include an appeal for national school closures this month, as well as entry restrictions this week on travellers from China and South Korea despite both countries reporting a sharp slowdown in infection numbers.

The Japanese Cabinet approved draft "state of emergency" measures yesterday that will give the prefectural authorities the right to impose curfews, close schools, call off events and take over private facilities for medical care.

The Bill is set to coast through the Diet - as Japan's Parliament is known - by this week despite some reservations among the opposition that it vests too much power in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet to make decisions without parliamentary approval.

"Given that individual rights would be suppressed after an emergency declaration, I would thoroughly examine its potential impact when making any decision," Mr Abe said on Monday.

This comes as the Prime Minister has been criticised for being absent and indifferent in the initial phase of the outbreak, as reflected in waning support for the Cabinet in numerous media polls.

A government panel of experts has also warned that Japan's fight against the coronavirus could last until the end of this year.

Mr Abe is now putting himself front and centre in Japan's response to the outbreak, with the fate of the Tokyo Olympic Games, due to open on July 24, on the line. Estimates show that cancelling the marquee sporting event will shave 1.4 per cent off Japan's gross domestic product, with the economy already on the brink of a recession.

But the Prime Minister, in imposing measures that have taken his own expert panel by surprise and even drawn backlash from some parts of society, is seen as overcompensating.

The measures include an appeal for national school closures this month, as well as entry restrictions this week on travellers from China and South Korea despite both countries reporting a sharp slowdown in infection numbers.

"Abe may be trying to demonstrate to both domestic and overseas audiences that he is ready to exercise strong leadership and take drastic action, if necessary," The Asahi Shimbun daily said in an editorial last Saturday, as it noted a series of "political (decisions) not based on solid science".

As it is, there has been mistrust over whether Japan's reported infection numbers actually reflect the situation on the ground.

The expert panel said they saw no evidence of cases mounting "explosively", but suspicions are rife that the more than 500 confirmed cases of Covid-19 could just be the tip of the iceberg, given Japan's limited testing capacity and strict screening criteria. Some patients have been denied tests even with a doctor's recommendation.

"While governments like Singapore's went into full gear when cases of domestic transmission occurred, in Japan there was an inertia and inability to grasp the possibility of an outbreak," Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Straits Times.

"Abe might now be hoping to shift perceptions (to show) that he is now reinvigorated and taking charge," he added, although he said he did not believe Mr Abe will declare a state of emergency as that would not bode well for the Olympics' chances.

Mr Abe said this week that the government plans to designate the coronavirus outbreak as a "historic emergency situation" in an administrative measure that requires proper management of public records.

The Health Ministry also urged municipal governments on Monday to prepare for the unlikely "worst-case scenarios", such as an influx of patients infected with the coronavirus, were the outbreak to worsen.

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