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Economy

Abe urges people to apply online for swift $930 payments

Prime minister acknowledges heavy reliance on China for protective gear

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters in Tokyo. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to see people apply for universal 100,000 yen ($930) cash payouts online or via mail to ensure the assistance gets to them quickly, possibly in May. 

"Unity with the people is important to overcome the fight against the virus, which could become protracted," the prime minister told a press conference Friday, explaining the cash assistance. 

Residents can apply "by mail or online," not at local government offices, Abe said, adding "We want to prioritize speed while also avoiding having floods of people [at the offices] that would heighten the risk of transmitting the virus."

The government has decided to give a cash handout of 100,000 yen to every resident, regardless of income and age, after a haphazard withdrawal of an earlier proposal to give 300,000 yen to qualifying households that had lost income. Heavy criticism of the earlier plan from the public, including coalition partner Komeito, forced Abe to scrap it. 

"I apologize to the people for creating confusion in the decision-making process," Abe told reporters.

Abe brought up Japan's heavy reliance on medical supplies, apologizing "as the prime minister" for a shortage of masks and other protective gear for medical personnel treating coronavirus patients.

"It's a problem that we depend heavily on foreign sources, especially China," he said.

On U.S. President Donald Trump's plan to cut off funding for the World Health Organization over alleged mismanagement of the pandemic, Abe said, "Japan is not considering reducing its contribution," adding that "we must support the WHO."

"It is true that [the WHO] has its problems and challenges," he said. "We should fully examine its functioning after the coronavirus outbreak is under control."

The cash handouts, designed to cushion the economic blow from the coronavirus pandemic, is expected to cost 14 trillion yen ($130 billion), the prime minister said. Although Abe did not specify when exactly the cash would get to households, he said it would take "another week" for it to be deliberated in parliament.

Finance Minister Taro Aso said separately on Friday that the payments should be ready by May.

This is in contrast to a stimulus program in 2009 that addressed the global financial crisis, which was bogged down by arguments over income limits and the time-consuming process of verifying handout recipients. Abe said it took three months just to send out the necessary information then.

Whether Japanese citizens living abroad will be eligible for the payments remains unclear, but they did not receive handouts in the 2009 stimulus program.

The money will be funded by a deficit-covering bond.

In other financial support, the government will supply up to 2 million yen for small and medium-sized enterprises and up to 1 million yen for freelancers who have been financially affected by the pandemic.

On Thursday, the Japanese government expanded the state of emergency to the entire country, beyond the initial seven prefectures including Tokyo, to contain the spread of coronavirus as new infection cases continue to rise. The state of emergency will last until at least May 6.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported a record 201 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday.

Abe did not make clear on Friday whether the state of emergency and restrictions on going out would be lifted on May 6. "I will make a decision based on experts' opinion," he stressed.

Even under the state of emergency, Japan is struggling to curb the movement of its people. As far as possible, Abe wants to reduce human contact by "at least 70%, and 80% at best." However, people were still going out to busy districts such as Shibuya in Tokyo and Umeda in Osaka last weekend.

"The situation is critical and it will be difficult to reduce the number of new cases" unless human contact is reduced, the prime minister warned.

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