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Coronavirus

COVID exposes Japan's weakness in digitization: experts

In a report, government staff acknowledge impromptu policies ‘turned out all right’

A report says that the government had no clear strategy for testing until July.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- While former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has boasted about the success of "the Japan model" in controlling the spread of COVID-19 compared with what happened in the U.S. and many European countries, experts on Thursday submitted a report to current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga suggesting that the outbreak could have been better handled.

Tokyo-based think tank Asia Pacific Initiative, known for its report of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, compiled a 466-page report on Japan's novel coronavirus response based on interviews with government officials.

COVID-19 "revealed Japan's vulnerabilities," said Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chair of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings who headed the research team, at a news conference on Thursday. One of the most visible vulnerabilities was the lack of digitization, as online distribution of subsidies failed to go smoothly.

According to the report, former Health Minister and current Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato acknowledged digitization was the "biggest challenge" in the government's coronavirus response. Analogue reporting of new cases, such as through fax, meant extra labor was needed by the public health centers which led to delayed updates.

Digitization across government bodies is one of the key goals heralded by the new administration under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

There was also miscommunication and bureaucratic hurdles between different bodies within the government, said Hiroko Ota, senior professor of economics at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. One of the policy suggestions in the report includes strengthening digitization under a command structure that can cut across ministries.

The report also addressed other structural issues in Japan's coronavirus response. For example, there was no clarity in how the government expert panel was selected, and their discussions were not recorded in official documents.

Moreover, since Japan's pandemic measures were prepared for influenza, the existing law and frameworks at the start of the outbreak did not apply to the novel coronavirus. There was no clear body in charge of COVID-19, and the health ministry set up its own expert panels. This led to lack of independence in the expert panel, said another research committee member.

The government should "summarize and review the role of expert panels under the state of emergencies," said the report.

There was also a suggestion to review the current law, which does not give the government authority to limit people's movement with enforceable orders even under a crisis. According to the report, Abe admitted that he was "worried" about achieving effective social distancing.

"There is no guarantee that the crisis management, which relies on the goodwill of the citizens, would work again in the future," said the report. It added that there should be economic support for companies and people affected by the restrictions.

The research also said that PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, testing was one of the weaknesses in Japan's COVID response. Even as Abe pushed for increasing testing, the health ministry remained reluctant because it was concerned about burdening medical institutions, among other risks.

There were no clear strategies to expand testing until July, according to the report. It suggests that the government should state how much capacity, such as for testing and masks, would be needed in infectious disease crises.

The report cited a government staff who said that Japan's policies were "rushed impromptu, but turned out all right."

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