Japan widens virus emergency to three more prefectures

Passersby wearing protective face masks walk under the street decoration of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Reuters)

TOKYO: Japan is declaring a state of emergency in three more prefectures hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, it said on Friday, in a surprise move that reflects growing concern about the spread of the coronavirus.
The latest declaration comes as Japan grapples with a surge of a more infectious virus strain just 10 weeks before the Tokyo Olympics are due to start on July 23.
Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima will join Tokyo, Osaka and four other prefectures on Sunday under a state of emergency until May 31, said Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of virus countermeasures.
With an eye on the economy, the government had originally proposed a more targeted “quasi-emergency” declaration for five additional prefectures.
“Experts told us that a strong message had to be sent to the public, given the critical situation with the mutant strains,” Nishimura told parliament, explaining the decision.
The less stringent measures will be widened to three prefectures as planned.
The latest measures bring 19 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, home to about 70% of the population, under curbs such as an 8 p.m. closing deadline for eateries and a ban on alcohol at most bars and restaurants.
Dai-ichi Life Research Institute estimated that the state of emergency in nine prefectures could slash about 1 trillion yen ($9.1 billion) from gross domestic product and cut 57,000 jobs over the coming months.
On Friday, a Reuters poll showed the economy would grow much more slowly than previously hoped this quarter, hobbled by emergency curbs.
Experts say medical resources are being pushed to the brink, while Japan’s inoculation drive has been the slowest among advanced nations, with just 3% of the population vaccinated, according to Reuters data.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga‘s popularity has been hit by what many see as his government’s inadequate virus response. A fresh poll by Jiji News put the cabinet’s approval rating at 32.2%, down 4.4 points from the previous survey.
Suga will hold a news conference at 8 p.m. (1100 GMT).
The northern island-prefecture of Hokkaido, set to host the marathon, reported a record 712 cases on Thursday. Japan’s tally of infections stands at about 656,000, with 11,161 deaths, and Tokyo, the capital, reported 854 new cases on Friday.
The state of emergency in Tokyo and elsewhere would run through this month, leaving fewer than two months until the Olympics.
Public opposition to the Summer Games, already postponed a year from 2020 because of the global pandemic, has persisted.
A change.org petition for cancellation of the Olympics garnered more than 350,000 signatures in just nine days, a record pace for the forum’s Japan version, the campaign organiser said.
It was submitted to the chiefs of the Olympic and Paralympic committees, as well as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
In a rare and blunt expression of trepidation by a high-profile businessman, SoftBank Group Corp Chief Executive Masayoshi Son said he was “afraid” of holding the Games, fearing for both Japan and the countries sending athletes.
Nishimura repeated the government’s stance that it would do its utmost to contain the pandemic to be able to hold a “safe and secure” Games.


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