Nothing to see here, Japan says
The author is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Looking at other passengers on the Japanese subway, I realized that most of them were not wearing masks. There were about 30 people in the car, since it was a holiday, and only five were wearing masks. That’s on par with an ordinary day in winter, unrelated to heightened fears over the new coronavirus.
I haven’t heard that schools in Japan closed because of the virus, or that the department store that a patient had visited closed. The Japanese government does not release the movement of patients in detail, arguing that it is personal information and that releasing it could cause anxiety.
Osaka Prefecture did not follow the government’s directions, and released the movement of patients. But it did not disclose which stores were visited or which forms of mass transit were used. One patient visited the popular tourist areas of Shinsaibashi and Osaka Castle. The media outlet pointed out how much privacy should be protected.
In Japan, the coronavirus has been viewed as a problem that concerns other countries. Medical experts appeared on television and repeatedly said that there is nothing to worry about under the Japanese medical system. It was not until the Diamond Princess cruise ship became a story that attention on the issue grew.
As of Feb. 13, 218 people have been diagnosed from the cruise ship. The Japanese government is now in a panic, after a healthy quarantine officer contracted the virus and a patient with severe symptoms was put on a respirator. People criticize that the potentially “golden time” to respond has been missed, because the government dominates the testing, instead of allowing general hospitals to do their own.
Some have argued that people without symptoms should be allowed to get off the ship. Aiji Kusumi, a doctor specializing in travel medicine, said that passengers could be watched while in self-quarantine, and foreigners should be sent back. Doctor Kusumi said it was impossible to simultaneously care for 3,700 people — half of them foreigners — under the Japanese medical system.
The Abe government will not budge, even as experts point out that the number of patients is growing, while trying to hush domestic complaints. Instead, the Japanese government is suggesting that the patients on the cruise ship do not count as domestic patients.
I cannot shake off the impression that the Abe government is attempting a cover-up, with the Tokyo Olympics due to be held in five months. Officials say it would be a big problem if the Olympic preliminary games were not held in Japan, or if the event is postponed.
Some say the cruise ship case may go down as the biggest misstep of the Abe administration, just as the 2011 East Japan earthquake still haunts the opposition party.