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Suga extends Tokyo COVID emergency as Olympics hang in balance

Data shows results and shortcomings of loose restrictions, prolonged for 2 weeks

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga explains the decision to extend the emergency in Tokyo on March 5. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- Japan's COVID-19 cases are falling thanks to, or perhaps despite, loose restrictions on economic activity. But with zero hour approaching for a decision on the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, the government is taking no chances and extended the state of emergency in the capital Friday evening.

The emergency was already lifted in most parts of the country by March 1. But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced the alert in the Tokyo area will last an extra two weeks, from the current deadline of Sunday. The new deadline of March 21 will be just ahead of the planned start of the Olympic torch relay on March 25 -- the date widely considered the point of no return for deciding whether to hold the games.

"We need two weeks to contain the spread of the infections and to carefully watch the situation," Suga explained to reporters. He cautioned that people's movements have been increasing in some areas, and "there is increasing fear of a rebound."

"I will cooperate with local municipalities to implement effective measures," he added, noting a renewed push to limit business hours, promote teleworking and discourage unnecessary outings. "I want to lower the level of hospital bed [occupancy] to more than sufficient levels."

Earlier the same day, Seiko Hashimoto, the new president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, touched on the plan to extend the emergency. "If extending the SOE can alleviate the impact from COVID, that can make people in Tokyo feel safer," she told reporters.

Experts and data suggest the precautionary measures -- centered on shutting down nightlife and closing the border to nonresidents -- have worked so far, though not enough to ease off now.

Following a state of emergency in April and May 2020, the second nationwide alert took effect on Jan. 8, asking restaurants to close at 8 p.m., limiting participants at events and urging residents to stay home as much as possible. Japan's daily confirmed cases dropped to 1,192 as of Thursday, from the peak of 7,855 on Jan. 9. Tokyo's number also fell to 279, from 2,520 on Jan. 7.

"Listening to [COVID-19] patients indicated that many of them caught the virus by eating in groups," said Satoshi Hori, professor of infectious disease control at Juntendo University in Tokyo. Curbing such gatherings -- where people take off their masks to chat, eat and drink alcohol -- "definitely was the major factor" in bringing down infection numbers, he said.

But Hori stressed the virus has not been stamped out. "There are still people who are gathering and drinking in the daytime or at home," he said. "These people are spreading the infections in their communities."

The number of daily infections per 1 million people stands at about eight in Japan, below the roughly 100 in the U.K. and 200 or so in the U.S. but still far more than the 0.3 in Australia and 0.02 in China.

The launch of Japan's vaccination drive on Feb. 17 was another step in the right direction, and the government expects to receive enough doses to fully immunize 4.7 million health care workers and 36 million seniors by the end of June. As of Thursday, 39,174 shots had been administered in the two-dose regimen.

Suga said vaccines are the "last card for infection measures" and stressed that he wants "to deliver them as soon as possible."

But inoculations for those younger than 65 will not start in earnest until July, meaning most of the public will not be fully vaccinated before the Olympics are due to open on July 23. There are also concerns about medical staffing shortages clogging up the process.

Tokyo 2020's Hashimoto acknowledged lingering worries in her Friday media briefing. "Even if we have a very thorough structure but trigger hikes in infections that will impact local hospitals, that gives tremendous concern and angst to the people," she said. "The percentage of people who support the Olympics this summer is small, and that's the reason."

Experts on Tokyo's COVID-19 monitoring committee this week said trends in weekly new cases, emergency medical care and hospitalization have declined but remain at high levels. "The pace of decrease in new cases has slowed, and we need to watch out for the virus spreading once again," especially given the risk posed by more contagious strains, the committee cautioned.

"There needs to be sufficient caution" regarding the new strains, Suga said. He said that people who arrive from abroad would now be monitored with mobile locational data and daily video calls.

It was amid fears of mutant strains discovered in the U.K. and South Africa that Japan tightened border controls at the end of December and eventually halted all new foreign entries for business or residency on Jan. 21, two weeks after the current state of emergency kicked in. Correlation does not equal causation, but the national seven-day average of daily new cases did drop from 6,000 to 1,000 by the end of February.

Within Tokyo, a closer look at data reveals the limits of the government's approach.

Since Japan's requests to individuals have been largely voluntary, and focused on avoiding nighttime outings, Tokyo's daytime traffic has changed only slightly during the emergency. Data from mobile provider NTT Docomo shows the population in Tokyo's Marunouchi office district was down by only 4% on March 3 at 3 p.m. compared with Jan. 7, before the emergency declaration.

Compared with April 7, 2020 -- the day the government declared the first emergency -- the number of people in Marunouchi was up by 15% on March 3.

Similar figures for the Shibuya entertainment district show a 42% daytime increase from April 7, 2020, and a 17% rise versus Jan. 7, 2021.

Apple mobility data also indicates that transit usage and pedestrian traffic declined after the declaration of the second emergency, but not as much as during the first.

The Olympic rings in Tokyo's waterfront district: Japan's decision on whether to hold the games, and in what form, is going down to the wire.   © Reuters

The upside is that the impact on the economy has been much milder this time. Industrial production fell 10% on the month in April 2020 after the first alert, but expanded 4% in January 2021. The month-on-month drop in retail sales last April was 9.9%; this January it was only 0.5%.

Suga appears to be hoping Japan can keep up this balancing act for another couple of weeks, and reduce infections enough to make the case for forging ahead with the Olympics.

Two days before announcing the extension, Suga had noted that infections were not completely disappearing, and that hospitals were "still under pressure." While Nikkei calculations as of Tuesday put the hospital bed occupancy rate below the benchmark of 50% in Tokyo, at 32%, and just below 50% in neighboring Chiba Prefecture, medical capacity remains a concern.

In his Friday remarks, Suga said that PCR testing would be ramped up, aiming to conduct checks in 30,000 senior care facilities in March and test asymptomatic individuals on streets to monitor infection clusters.

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