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Japan's virus response lacked boldness of Singapore and Taiwan

Governments strike different balances between human rights and prevention

A thermal screening booth at a Singapore mall: The city-state was quicker than many other countries to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As the new coronavirus spreads outside China, Japan faces criticism of being lax in responding to the threat, in contrast with the sometimes drastic action taken by other Asian governments to control the outbreak.

Leaders from Japan's ruling and opposition parties met Wednesday to discuss enhancing legal authority for dealing with the outbreak. Their proposal would include letting authorities require, rather than request, the cancellation of events.

This push came months after the virus emerged in mainland China, while authorities in such places as Singapore and Taiwan moved much sooner based on their experience with past outbreaks. But some of their more draconian measures raise economic, privacy and human rights concerns that make such steps less feasible in Japan.

Singapore in late January barred all Chinese travelers from entering or transiting through the city-state. The ban was expanded Wednesday to any visitors who were in South Korea, northern Italy or Iran -- the largest hot spots outside China -- within the preceding two weeks.

On the same day, the government began requiring coronavirus screenings at airports and border crossings for any incoming travelers who have fever or respiratory symptoms.

Authorities in Taiwan classified the virus as a designated infectious disease on Jan. 15, allowing for quarantines of people found to be infected. All residents of mainland China were banned from entry starting Feb. 6.

South Korea, which boosted its testing capacity to 15,000 per day, has screened more than 130,000 people. Early detection can help patients recover sooner and curb the spread of the virus, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Singapore and South Korea also have thoroughly traced the contacts of infected people, going so far as to check their phone history.

Each of these jurisdictions is acting based on lessons from previous novel disease outbreaks with high local death tolls: severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 for Singapore and Taiwan; and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in 2015 for South Korea.

Revisions in 2003 to Singapore's Infectious Disease Act allow for a fine of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars ($7,190) or six months in jail for anyone who breaks quarantine orders.

After its MERS outbreak, South Korea vastly increased the number of disease testing sites at private hospitals and reduced the time needed to get results. Municipal authorities have set up drive-through testing stations where health workers collect samples through car windows.

Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have governing structures that facilitate speedy, top-down decision making. Singapore has been led by the People's Action Party since gaining independence in 1965. South Korea and Taiwan live under constant threat from North Korea and mainland China, respectively.

Public responses to outbreak control measures have varied. In South Korea, which has well over 5,000 coronavirus cases and faces shortages of masks, President Moon Jae-in is under fire for not imposing a total ban on travelers from China. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, meanwhile, is enjoying her highest approval rating in nearly four years thanks to support for her handling of the virus.

Observers argue that Japan has applied lessons from the 2009 influenza pandemic in a completely different way from other countries. Tokyo feared that patients with mild symptoms could flood medical facilities to seek treatment, to the detriment of high-risk cases that should be prioritized.

Japan's approach to combating the coronavirus is believed to owe to human rights and privacy concerns, as well as consideration for relations with China -- on which the country relies economically and for tourism -- and worry about disruption to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

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