Japan's COVID-19 response is divisive. Numbers are low but so is their testing rate

While the World Health Organisations says testing is critical to fighting the virus, Japan’s rates remain comparatively low.

Japan coronavirus

Source: The New York Times

David has been living in Japan for ten years. From his home in Tokyo, the Australian and his family have been watching the world fight a global pandemic while fearing Japan is lagging behind.

Concerned about the virus -- and the potential impact on his wife and seven-month-old son -- he asked his boss at a Japanese law-firm to work from home. His boss declined.

“There has been no push for telecommuting, as in Japan you are expected to show up in person even if your job can be done online,” he said.

“I, the only non-Japanese in my office, had my request to telecommute denied, even though I expressed concern for my wife and seven-month-old son.”

It’s not just the workplace, there have been reports of packed commuter trains and large gatherings while most move towards extreme social distancing measures.

“I feel that the [government] response has been pathetic.”

Overall, Japan’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been divisive. While the number of confirmed cases are relatively low -- 1,387 at time of publication -- so is testing.

As of March 20, Japan had tested 14,901 people. Compared to other nations: Australia alone has tested 113,615, and South Korea 316,664.

The World Health Organisation has said diagnostic testing for COVID-19 is critical to tracking the virus, understanding epidemiology, informing case management, and for suppressing transmission.

The low infection rate has been attributed to the country’s reputation for overall good hygiene and using face-masks as a cultural norm in Japan. The country closed schools from February until late March, banned sports events and concerts.

People arriving from overseas that are required to be quarantined for 14 days and are prohibited from using public transport.

Japan's health ministry said it has been focusing on clusters of cases, with the biggest around the megacities of Osaka and Tokyo, and in the prefectures of Hyogo, Hokkaido and Aichi.

Dr Lauren Richardson, the Director of Studies and Lecturer at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, who was recently in Japan for a conference, said that despite undertesting, it would be difficult for Japan to conceal high numbers.

“We would see a huge spike in hospitals and deaths and that is not happening. When you have populations as huge as Tokyo and Osaka you can’t hide that.”

However, Kenji Shibuya, former chief of health policy at the World Health Organisation, told Bloomberg that Japan has either “contained the spread by focusing on outbreak clusters, or … there are outbreaks yet to be found.”

There have been speculations that the government has kept testing low to hide the scope of infections ahead of the International Olympic Committee’s decision of the 2020 games in Tokyo.

“Tokyo had to do everything to maintain the games,” said Dr Barbara Holthus from the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo.

“The low numbers are showing people that they are safe but I don’t believe it is true.

“The trains are still 100 percent full in rush hour...they are crowded so you can’t social distance.”

Over the weekend, despite most of the world being in some form of lock down, Japanese people flocked in the thousands to cherry blossom hotspots across Tokyo, in celebration of the coming of spring.

Dr Holthus said that since the Olympics have been delayed early this week, public health messaging has increased.

Officials have encouraged people this weekend to stay indoors. On Thursday, the government announced it would set up a task-force to handle the crisis warning it could spread widely.

David will continue to go to work, while practicing self distancing when he can. He said only time will tell if more testing will reveal the virus is in-fact more widespread.

“The results could be quite telling as there is a general belief, among Japanese and non-Japanese alike, that the true number of cases has yet to be revealed,” he said.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

 Contact Emily Jane Smith - emily.smith@sbs.com.au

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5 min read
Published 28 March 2020 at 8:05am
By Emily Jane Smith