Troubled journey that was the road to Japan

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021 00:00 |
A journalist wears a face mask as a preventive measure against coronavirus while sitting behind a protective plexiglass at the Main Press Centre in Tokyo on July 21, 2021, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo/AFP

Tokyo, Wednesday

From a cruise ship outbreak that focused international attention on the virus, to wrangling over the Olympics, Japan’s experience of the pandemic has been squarely in the spotlight from the start.

Alternately criticised for its response and held up as a model, Japan has recorded around 15,000 virus deaths while avoiding lockdowns.

It was one of the first countries outside China to detect a virus case, and began testing arrivals from Wuhan early on.

But the outbreak took on a different cast in February 2020, when the Diamond Princess cruise ship was put in quarantine off the city of Yokohama.

Hundreds of people on board tested positive and 13 died, with Japanese authorities heavily criticised for insisting passengers and crew stay on the boat, where the virus continued to spread.

Domestically, the government’s policy focused on asking people to stay home if they felt sick while limiting testing -- a decision that was ferociously debated.

Advocates argued mass testing was an imperfect tool that could overwhelm medical centres and wouldn’t change the anti-infection measures everyone needed to observe.

But critics warned low testing levels limited visibility over how the virus was spreading, and hampered efforts to contain it.

As the pandemic worsened, the unthinkable happened: in March 2020, the Olympics was postponed.

A state of emergency was later announced in Tokyo and would eventually expand nationwide.

The measure was far less strict than the lockdowns in place elsewhere, mostly asking people to stay at home, but imposing no legal requirements or punishments.

When it ended in May, people picked up something resembling normal life, following guidance to “avoid the three Cs” -- close contact, closed spaces and crowded places.

Mask-wearing, already common in Japan, was almost universal, and throughout the summer things seemed under control, with government campaigns even promoting domestic travel and eating out.

But as in many parts of the world, the winter hit hard and a second state of emergency followed in January. Restrictions were in place for most of the run-up to the Olympics.

The worsening situation fuelled growing opposition to the Games, and rumours spread of a possible cancellation, but were quickly shot down.

As vaccine rollouts began in the United States and Britain, things moved slower in Japan.

The Pfizer formula was only approved in mid-February, and inoculations started cautiously, first for medical workers and then the elderly.

The pace picked up from May, but a week before the Games just 20 percent of Japan’s population was fully vaccinated, and organisers opted to ban spectators from almost all competition for the first time in Olympic history.   -AFP

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