Japan Leads Global COVID-19 Cases Amid Rising Economic Pressures, Painting Uncertain Picture of the Future
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Japan Leads Global COVID-19 Cases Amid Rising Economic Pressures, Painting Uncertain Picture of the Future

By Molly Kaiser for The J-Pop Exchange

Once a model for its handle on the coronavirus pandemic, Japan is experiencing its highest incidence of COVID-19 cases, with case numbers toppling South Korea and the U.S.

The past month marked grim milestones in the course of the pandemic as daily infection reports continue to break records. According to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, the first week of August marked the country’s highest levels of infection since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Japan reported 231,499 new cases Wednesday, August 17 and broke the daily record for reported cases Thursday. Tokyo–the country’s capital–reported the highest number of new cases of any region Thursday at 27,453, according to Japan Today.

The current outbreak is attributed to the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants, according to a Japanese government official, which are milder but more virulent strains that can evade individual immunity and even vaccines. This seventh wave of infection is sending shockwaves as the country has long touted a strong COVID-19 response relative to its global peers, with only approximately 32,000 total deaths before the current outbreak. For context, the U.S. surpassed one million COVID-19 related deaths in May.

In response to rising cases and an overwhelmed healthcare sector, the Health Ministry is considering a change to its current case tracking system by opting to not track all COVID-19 cases in the hopes that reduced paperwork will allow doctors to better focus on patients, according to Nikkei Asia. As it stands, doctors must report all cases to local health departments.

According to Bloomberg, Prime Minister Kishida may downgrade COVID-19 to an endemic after the current wave which would allow patients to be treated at general clinics in addition to loosening standards for case tracking. But critics say this action alone is not enough, and that more work needs to be done to bolster the current treatment system.

Balancing the health of people and the economy

In addition to loosening tracking rules, the government has been reluctant to impose restrictions that would interfere with business amid high inflation rates. Japan is the world’s third largest economy, and its Consumer Price Index has crept up to 2.5% in the past few months, which is high for a country with relatively stable prices for the past 30 years. The country’s main strategy has been encouraging citizens to make safe decisions without strict action from the government.

Prime Minister Kishida has maintained his government will not institute restrictions to movement or business activity. Instead, they are urging individuals to take “maximum caution,” according to Forbes reporting.

In Japan’s two largest prefectures, Tokyo and Osaka, officials have imposed a “red alert” - urging citizens to avoid non-essential travel and gatherings, according to Forbes. But neither region has passed restrictions on the size of gatherings in public.

A changing tourism landscape

The current outbreak has also stagnated an already slow return to pre-pandemic tourism levels, an industry valued at $37 billion in 2019. Although Japan lifted its travel ban in June, it maintains strict guidelines for foreigners visiting the country, including government sanctioned tours, required escorts for visitors and a cap of 20,000 international daily arrivals.

This has opened the door for domestic travel, which reached 90% of pre-pandemic levels in July and August. Resources like reservations, rental cars and lodging that were previously usurped by tourists are now open to residents. But even domestic travel hangs in the balance amid the outbreak. In a Bloomberg article, Takuto Yasuda, an economist at NLI Research Institute, said that rising case numbers might discourage domestic travelers without government restrictions.

“If the number of new cases continues to beat records, demand for travel and consumption will likely fall despite the absence of restrictions,” said Takuto Yasuda, an economist at NLI Research Institute, in an interview. “If the government declares a state of emergency, it will have a greater negative impact on the economy.”


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