TOKYO – With the spread of the Delta variant, new COVID-19 infections are rising around the world, and much more so in regions and countries with low vaccination rates. Japan is no exception. Only around 40% of its population is fully vaccinated – compared to vaccination rates of 50-65% in the other G7 countries – and its infection rate has increased sharply over the past two months. As of August 24, its seven-day rolling average of daily confirmed cases was 23,036, up from 3,000 only one month earlier.
Before the current surge, the highest seven-day average was around 6,500, reached in January and again in May of this year. During those earlier surges, the Japanese government’s declaration of emergency and “requests” that people not go out had some effect. But this time, the requests have been largely ignored.
The rising infection rate is bad news for a government that must soon face a general election. But there are two bright spots. First, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games unfolded this summer without any major incidents, and with Japanese athletes winning 27 gold medals (the third-highest count after the United States and China). A majority of Japanese now feel that it was good to have hosted the Games – a stark shift from pre-event polls.
Second, although Japan is trailing many other G7 and OECD countries in vaccinations, its vaccine rollout is nonetheless accelerating. In the two months from June 19 to August 19, Japan’s share of fully vaccinated people rose from 8% to 40%, while the US rate rose only from 45% to 51%. If current trends continue, Japan may overtake the US by late September. And by late October, it will achieve a vaccination level comparable to New York State and major European countries, where masks are no longer required in many places.
Despite the recent progress, the Japanese government’s approval rating has sunk from 45% in March-April to below 30% today. That is bad news for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose term as the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) expires at the end of September, and whose four-year term in the House of Representatives ends on October 21.
Upon succeeding Shinzo Abe as prime minister last year, Suga initially had planned to call a snap election shortly after the end of the Paralympic Games on September 5, because an expected win in the general election would almost guarantee his own re-election as LDP leader.
But three factors have made that plan unworkable. The first is the explosion of the Delta variant. The number of prefectures under emergency or near-emergency declarations increased from 13 to 29 on August 20. And although the government’s declaration for Tokyo and a few other areas are scheduled to end on September 12, it is unlikely that all the emergency declarations will be lifted on that day. It would be considered inappropriate to call an election when many areas are still subject to emergency declarations, so Suga must first win the LDP leadership election, defeating competitors who have seized the opportunity offered by his low approval rating.
A second problem that is sinking the current government’s approval is that some infected people are reportedly dying at home because many of the beds reserved for COVID-19 patients are already full. Worse, some hospitals have refused to admit more patients despite pleas from local government health coordinators.
These issues were laid bare this month by the widely reported, heart-breaking case of a pregnant woman with COVID-19 who was turned away from the hospital even after she had gone into premature labor. Forced to deliver the baby at home, she called an ambulance, but it arrived too late, and her baby died. This episode may linger in voters’ memories as a signal of policy failure. Moreover, the number of people dying at home as a result of hospital incapacity will only continue to increase in the coming weeks.
The third factor weighing Suga’s political prospects is the economy. Recently released second-quarter figures suggest a weak recovery, with annualized growth reaching just 1.3%. Japan’s real (inflation-adjusted) GDP remains at 97% of its pre-pandemic peak in the third quarter of 2019. By contrast, second-quarter GDP in the US was already 1% higher than its pre-pandemic peak in the fourth quarter of 2019.
The government has offered essentially no policy response to deal with the Delta wave or the country’s continuing economic woes. All it can point to is an emergency declaration that imposes only soft restraints, such as the request that restaurants not serve alcohol and close their doors at 8 p.m.
Japan must learn from New York, where public authorities last year ordered a suspension of all indoor dining while allowing restaurants to remain open for take-out customers. Large offices were closed, and schools and universities shifted to remote teaching. If people went out, it was only for reasons like grocery shopping or to see a doctor. When there was a shortage of hospital beds, the New York State government converted the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center into a field hospital. At least one hospital also erected tents in Central Park for additional beds.
Given the latest surge of infections, Suga should be pressing for the temporary closure of all restaurants and shops. If necessary, the law should be changed to empower the government to impose a “city lockdown,” shuttering restaurants, shops, offices, and large-scale events in urban areas. And even if these measures prove infeasible, many more resources should be given to hospitals on the condition that they accept COVID-19 patients when requested. Unless Suga acts quickly, more lives will be lost, and his own political position may become yet another victim of the virus.
Takatoshi Ito, a former Japanese deputy vice minister of finance, is a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a senior professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.