Japan Struggles to Balance Economy, Safety Amid COVID-19 Third Wave

COVID-19 cases at record high . . .

Japan marked a record-high 2,425 COVID-19 cases today and has surpassed 2,000 cases three days in a row. The infection rate is rising sharply in big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, and in the northern prefecture of Hokkaido. During the country’s second wave, the virus spread widely among younger people. This ‘third wave’ of infections is observed across a broader range of age groups and is being transmitted through various environments, including workplaces, public facilities, and households. In Tokyo, the percentage of infected patients over 60 years old is more than double that seen in the second wave, and the health-care system is under pressure.

What is driving infections?

Experts have cited inadequate preventative measures, increased movement, and cold temperatures as possible factors driving up the country’s infection rates. The government’s domestic travel subsidy campaign – ‘Go To Travel’ – has also been implicated in lowering public alertness to the disease. Even with the Go To Travel program in place, the majority of the population plans to refrain from visiting hometowns for new year’s celebrations, suggesting that people are increasingly aware of the dangers posed by the virus’ resurgence and are especially wary of spreading it to elderly family members.

A patchwork of local pandemic policies . . .

While the central government – in an effort to balance economic recovery with virus containment – has not taken stricter measures, some local governments are responding with tighter controls. Bars have had to shorten business hours in the northern city of Sapporo, but no such measures are required in Tokyo, where the governor’s public messaging focuses mostly on individual behaviour, such as recommending dining out in small groups for shorter periods. And while some tourist destinations have seen an uptick in economic activity due to the tourism stimulus program, balancing the economy and public health continues to be a challenge, with local governments often stepping in with flexible responses to address unique local situations.