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Japan widens virus emergency for 7 more areas as cases surge

Last Updated Jan 13, 2021 at 4:54 am EST

People wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus cross an intersection on a street in Tokyo, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

TOKYO — Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency for seven more prefectures Wednesday, affecting more than half the population amid a surge in infections across the country.

Prime Minister Yoshide Suga’s announcement comes less than a week after he declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and three nearby prefectures. The new declaration, which adds seven other prefectures in western and central Japan, takes effect Thursday and lasts until Feb. 7.

The government is asking bars and restaurants in Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Aichi, Gifu and Tochigi prefectures to close by 8 p.m., employers to have 70% of their staff work from home and residents in the affected areas avoid going out for nonessential purposes.

Suga has been criticized as being to slow to act as the country’s number of reported coronavirus infections and deaths roughly doubled over the past month to about 300,000 and 4,100. Both states of emergency were declared only after local leaders had pleaded with him to do so.

Experts have warned that even the state of emergency measures, which are non-binding and largely rely on voluntary co-operation, may be insufficient to significantly slow the infections.

Unlike the earlier seven-week emergency Japan had in April and May last year, schools, gyms, theatres and shops will stay open.

Suga has faced criticism for not taking strong enough government action earlier in the outbreak. He mostly limited his interventions to asking the public to take basic safety measures such as wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding drinking and dining in groups until mid-December, when he finally announced the suspension of a government-subsidized tourism campaign.

Suga eventually took action after calls from the local leaders, while his support ratings nosedived in polls showing the public increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of the virus.

Suga took office in mid-September and pledged to keep the infections under control while also getting the economy back on track. He also promised to successfully hold the Tokyo Olympic, which were postponed from last year until this coming summer.

Despite the current surge in infections, Japan has reported far fewer infections than many countries of its size.

Japan made it through earlier surges in infections without a lockdown, but experts and officials warn that people are growing fatigued and are becoming less co-operative than before.

In a bid to more effectively enforce virus measures, Suga has said he will seek a legal revision in parliament next week to allow authorities to penalize business owners who defy official requests for coronavirus measures, while legally providing compensation to those who comply. Suga’s government also plans to revise the infectious disease control law so it can penalize patients who defy self-isolation requirements, hospitalization or co-operation with health authorities, Japanese media reports say.

Japan Medical Association President Toshio Nakagawa said at a news conference Wednesday that medical systems in the country have been collapsing, with regular daily treatment at many hospitals compromised due to the growing burden of coronavirus patients.

“I’m afraid a fear of explosive infections as in the U.S. and Europe can become a reality,” he said, urging people to co-operate, regain their sense of crisis and urgency.

Japanese coronavirus measures have relied heavily on widespread mask wearing, contact tracing and other safety measures. But the number of new cases in the current outbreak has made contact tracing impossible, prompting Tokyo and neighbouring prefectures to announce a cutback on the strategy to relieve the burden on local public health officials.

Experts have also raised concerns about cases of more contagious variant of the coronavirus that has spread across Britain. About 30 cases of the new variant have been detected since late December. Another variant was also detected in four people arriving from Brazil this week.

Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press