TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a monthlong state of emergency for Tokyo and six other prefectures on Tuesday to ramp up defenses against the spread of the coronavirus as the number of infections surges.
But the move came in the form of a stay-at-home request — not an order — and violators will not be penalized.
The COVID-19 outbreak is now rampant and rapidly spreading, threatening people’s health, their daily lives and the economy, Abe said.
The state of emergency, which is until May 6, will only permit Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and heads of the six other prefectures to do more to reinforce calls for social distancing.
“The most important thing is for each one of us to change our activity,” Abe told a government task force. He urged everyone to cut contacts with others by 70-80% for one month, calling the coronavirus pandemic “the biggest postwar crisis.”
The announcement follows surges in new cases in Tokyo, including consecutive rises exceeding 100 over the weekend. By Tuesday there were 1,196 confirmed cases in the metropolitan region of 14 million people. Nationwide, Japan has reported 91 deaths from COVID-19 and 3,906 confirmed cases, plus another 712 cases and 11 fatalities from a cruise ship that was quarantined earlier at Yokohama port near Tokyo.
Abe has been under pressure to declare a state of emergency to get better compliance with calls for social distancing amid rising alarm over the number of cases without any known contact with other patients.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike welcomed the emergency measures, saying she expects they “will prevail widely and deeply among the people." She said her immediate request under the state of emergency is “stay home."
Japan's limits on official action during a state of emergency stem from its experience with repression and disasters stemming from fascist governments before and during World War II. The public is doubly wary due to the push by Abe's ultra-conservative ruling party and its supporters for a constitutional amendment to include a state of emergency clause for disaster and wartime contingencies.
Abe's government is thought to have delayed declaring a state of emergency out of fear of how it might hurt the economy. But as fear of the pandemic has grown, the public and medical experts have increasingly supported taking more drastic action.
The state of emergency includes a stay-at-home request; guidance to schools on temporary closures and requests to close nonessential businesses and stores and to cancel or postpone events and exhibits. Violators cannot be penalized unless they fail to comply with orders on providing or storing emergency relief goods, such as surgical masks and medical equipment.
Still, the state of emergency could significantly limit movement of people around and out of the city. Takahide Kiuchi, an economist at Nomura Research Institute, said in a recent report that a state of emergency could cause consumer spending to fall nearly 2.5 trillion yen ($23 billion), leading to a 0.4% drop in Japan’s annual GDP.
Abe's government also announced a 108 trillion yen ($1 trillion) stimulus package to help the country to survive the economic downturn and to protect businesses and jobs.
The government overcame controversy over risks to civil rights to gain approval of a special law last month enabling Abe to declare a state of emergency.
Earlier, Japan sought to curb infections by closely monitoring clusters of cases and keeping them under control, rather than conducting massive testing as was done in neighboring South Korea. That strategy appears to be failing given the sharp rise in cases not linked to previous known infections.
As is true in many places, there are fears over shortages of beds and ICU units for patients with severe symptoms.
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