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Learning from Japan

Opinion

May 30, 2020

With the world’s oldest population and being one of the favorite tourist destinations for the Chinese, conditions seemed to be ripe for a major outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Japan when the pandemic first arrived its shores in January this year. However, the outbreak never happened.

Japan dodged a bullet. Recently, the state of emergency that was imposed a few weeks ago has been lifted all across Japan. The WHO has termed Japan’s fight against Covid-19 a “success”. To see how this happened and whether the Japanese model can be replicated in Pakistan or any other country for that matter, let us analyze the success story of Japan.

Initially, the Abe administration was heavily criticized for their handling of the ‘Diamond Cruise’ in Yokohama Bay and careless airport health examination for Japanese nationals evacuated from Wuhan, and the prime minister was grilled by the opposition for not being visible during the crisis. Despite all these factors, Japan did not see any surge in cases or the number of deaths – till now Japan has had almost 16500 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection with only 850 deaths. There has to be something behind these statistics.

Some experts say that low testing by the Japanese government as compared to other countries like South Korea and the US masked the real number of Corona patients. While the Japanese healthcare system only tests patients with severe symptoms and there has been relatively a very low number of tests, there has not been any unusual spike in the number of deaths being a significant indicator to measure the state of Covid-19 situation in any country.

Some experts credit the high quality of the healthcare system in Japan but countries with world class healthcare systems have suffered a great deal.

It is also worth mentioning that Japan did declare a state of emergency in some prefectures at first and later all over Japan, but there were no legal means to enforce that. Public transport and many other services continued in a normal fashion and hence the state of emergency in Japan was not comparable to the lockdowns experienced in Spain, Italy or China. There were no fines or punishments involved for non-compliance.

Some also opine that an early ‘Entry Ban’ imposed by Japan on countries with a high number of Covid-19 cases also helped contain the pandemic. Japan has imposed such restrictions on 111 countries. Pakistan and India were included recently on May 27, 2020. However, China, Korea, the US and the whole of Europe were subjected to this ban much earlier.

Although all the aforementioned factors played a part in containing the spread of pandemic in Japan, one of the most important factors in containing the outbreak is the attitude, approach and lifestyle changes by Japanese people and society. Japanese society is known for its discipline and high quality work ethics. Wearing masks is already common. Any appeal from Japanese Government is met with dedicated compliance. Apprehensions that Pakistan cannot sustain a lockdown as the poor would starve are not totally unfounded since there have been gruesome images seen around the region to what chaos forced lockdown has created.

However, it is very difficult to replicate the Japanese model to fight Covid-19 in Pakistan due to a variety of reasons. In our case, a large chunk of our population does not believe that the coronavirus even exists and conspiracy theories are in high demand. We have not made any changes to our lifestyle. We see that even spikes in cases have not barred us from attending social gatherings; a large chunk of our population does not wear masks or sanitize before or after shaking hands; and, we do not maintain social distancing as recommended by the WHO.

With this approach and attitude, we are hoping against hope that Pakistan does not become the next hotspot for Covid-19. The idea of extensive testing especially when it is also done by ‘private labs’ is not recommended much, keeping in mind the possibility of profiteering by companies and professionals. In Japan, no one can be tested unless recommended by a hospital approved by the government. There are early signs now that our healthcare system is becoming overburdened and it can lead to all sorts of tragedies as witnessed by Italy and Spain.

The Japanese have shown us that if society is willing to act collectively, the desired outcome can be obtained even if there are limitations on the part of the government or leadership. In the case of Pakistan, if we are not going to pay heed to the government’s guidelines, it will be tough to contain the pandemic.

The writer is second secretary at the Embassy of Pakistan, Tokyo.