Japan’s response to the coronavirus is a slow-motion train wreck

Japan’s bureaucrats are great at some things. Crisis management doesn’t seem to be one of them.

As it attempts to manage the fallout of the covid-19 coronavirus — which has taken the lives of more than 2,000 people worldwide, including a Japanese man and woman on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship — Japan is reliving the bureaucratic red-tape nightmares that hampered emergency efforts in Kobe in 1995 and Fukushima in 2011.

After a major quake devastated Kobe in 1995, volunteers who came to offer help to the displaced were turned away by officials, as were Swiss search-and-rescue dogs because authorities refused to relax quarantine regulations. Even yakuza opened soup kitchens for the displaced before the government acted.

And during the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011, bureaucratic inertia and reluctance to acknowledge the scale of the problem impeded the emergency response to the three reactor meltdowns. The postmortem of that debacle deemed it to be a man-made disaster because sensible safety measures were not enforced or implemented, oversight was lax and the crisis response was a fiasco. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Diet investigation into the Fukushima disaster, blamed “the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy … which led bureaucrats to put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety.”

Here we go again.

The response to the coronavirus in Japan is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. The government dithered in responding until after the influx of Chinese New Year’s holidaymakers at the end of January, belatedly closing the barn door. Officials were inordinately complacent when they should have been implementing sensible countermeasures and preparing for an outbreak. Why were authorities so slow to implement careful vetting and enhanced monitoring of incoming visitors? There was time to acquire large numbers of test kits, so why didn’t this happen?

The reality is that the officials in charge of managing the outbreak are not experts in preventing or containing pandemics. They have tried to improvise a response‚ but have come up short.

In particular, the cruise ship Diamond Princess has gained international notoriety because Japanese health officials bungled the quarantine and transformed the luxury vessel into a massive floating petri dish. Kentaro Iwata, a health expert at Kobe University who has dealt with Ebola and SARS outbreaks, visited the ship and expressed concern that fundamental quarantine protocols were not being observed. His account of a chaotic and slipshod situation was confirmed by crew and passengers.

About one-fifth of those tested have the virus, with at least 542 cases confirmed, but test results are not yet in for an additional 1,300 passengers and crew. Yet the National Institute of Infectious Diseases maintains that “the quarantine intervention was effective in reducing transmission among passengers.”

Those who have tested negative have now been released from a prolonged and excruciating ordeal on the ship. But there have been cases around the world of people testing negative initially who subsequently test positive. The decision to allow potentially infected people to mix with the larger population might prove to be an epic mistake. Keeping people on the ship was thought to be a way of preventing an outbreak. Having botched that initial response, health officials appear to have gotten it wrong again by letting people return home without placing them in proper quarantine facilities.

It took too long for the cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to acknowledge the risks. It seems the planned spring summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping might have influenced the Abe government’s response. In addition, as Japan’s recession deepens, concerns about the impact on regional supply chains and broader economic ties made Abe hesitant when he needed to be resolute. Now his government is still enacting half-measures when it should be decisive.

Politically, this is tricky for Abe, who is facing criticism for numerous cronyism scandals. One can forgive those Japanese who might be wondering whether public health concerns were overtaken by political and economic calculations. And the Japanese economy was already reeling from the 2019 tax increase and the slumping Chinese economy. The mishandling of the Diamond Princess quarantine has now sent tourism into a tailspin amid unsparing coverage in the international media.

The tide is turning domestically. Public discontent with the Abe cabinet’s woeful mismanagement of this health crisis is rising. The Yomiuri, a reliably pro-Abe media group, found a 5 percent drop in support for Abe from January 2020; 52 percent expressed dissatisfaction with how the government has handled the crisis. And well they should.

Much is at stake. The coronavirus is heading for a collision with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in July and August. Olympic officials insist that the Games will not be canceled or postponed. The government has spent nearly $30 billion on Olympic preparations while there are several billion dollars in sponsorship deals hanging in the balance.

Fingers are crossed that this pandemic will abate in time for the Games to proceed. But the postmortem on Team Abe’s sleepy risk management is unlikely to be favorable.

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan, is the author of “Japan.”

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