The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Japan faces uptick in coronavirus cases but no political will for new shutdowns

People wearing masks walk at Shibuya pedestrian crossing in Tokyo on July 2. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

TOKYO — Japan is facing a sudden spike in coronavirus cases, but this time with no political will for another round of economically punishing shutdowns.

At the end of last month, the national government abruptly dismantled a panel of medical experts that had been guiding the response to the virus, and replaced it with a group that includes envoys from the business world and others.

Tokyo’s municipal government also abandoned an alert system based on numerical targets that could have triggered fresh shutdowns if the virus started spreading again.

The message from Japan’s leadership has been clear: The virus will be tackled only through measures “that would not further harm the economy,” according to Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike.

Japan’s covid-19 crisis is less severe than many countries’ in raw numbers — fewer than 1,000 deaths by official count. But the economy-first policy marks a jarring contrast to other places as varied as California and Melbourne, Australia, which reimposed restrictions after reopening and seeing coronavirus cases surge back.

The tug of war between the economy and virus containment is familiar in many parts of the world. So are the warnings from public health experts.

“Are they going to politicize science again?” Kentaro Iwata, who studies infectious diseases at Kobe University, tweeted when the panel was disbanded, calling it a “dumb” decision. “Things will continue to deteriorate, and we will be going back to the old Japan.”

Until recently, Japan’s government had been preening over what it portrays as a successful response to the virus.

But the backslapping may have been premature.

Soon after the state of emergency was lifted in late May, Tokyo’s nightspots gradually started coming back to life and its offices, trains and streets started to fill up again.

In the past six days, the number of new infections rose by an average of 219 a day, more than half of them in Tokyo, and many among people in their 20s and 30s. At one point in the spring, the daily rate of new infections fell to just a few dozen a day from a peak of more than 700. Japan has confirmed about 20,000 cases of the coronavirus since the outbreak began.

“The situation is different today from early April when we issued the state of emergency,” said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the economy minister, who is in charge of the government’s coronavirus response. He argued that the health-care system was not under strain, while the capacity to conduct tests was greater than it had been three months ago.

But Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist at Tohoku University and leading member of the original expert panel, noted several worrying signals: Some severe cases have emerged in younger people.

The virus has spread outside Tokyo as well as back into at least one hospital and a nursing home — all indications of a rise in “community transmission,” he said.

“There is a time lag between infection and reporting,” he added in an interview. “What we are seeing now reflects what happened 10 to 14 days ago. We are going to see the real situation now in 10 or 14 days, so we have to monitor the situation closely, and we need more effective control measures for these nightlife settings.”

The now-dismantled panel of experts had come under criticism for not being transparent because minutes of its meetings were never published. It also was accused of not being sufficiently independent of the government.

Now, the panel has effectively been replaced with two new subcommittees of advisers.

Oshitani and other infectious-disease experts are still there, but they are joined by economists and public health bureaucrats, as well as experts in health-care communications and artificial intelligence, business representatives and a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist.

Oshitani admits it will be “more difficult to get consensus” within the panel.

But there is little doubt who is calling the shots.

Despite the rise in cases, the government says there is no need for another broad shutdown, while plans to admit fans to baseball and soccer matches will go ahead beginning Friday, albeit in smaller-than-usual numbers.

“The previous expert panel was not perfect — they were struggling between the science and the politics, but they tried to do whatever they could,” said Kenji Shibuya, a professor of global health at King’s College London. “But now the process went back to the old system, where the bureaucrats prepare all the proposals and the panel just endorses it.”

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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