World News

Japan Tries a New Tactic as Virus Surges: Public Shaming

Posted August 3, 2021 11:34 a.m. EDT
Updated August 3, 2021 11:45 a.m. EDT

As Japan strains to control its galloping coronavirus outbreak, and to keep an Olympic bubble from bursting in the final days of the Games, the government is trying a new tactic: public shaming.

On Monday, Japan’s health ministry released the names of three people who broke COVID-19 rules after returning from overseas. An official statement said that the three people — two Japanese nationals in their 20s who returned from South Korea, and a third who returned from Hawaii — had clearly acted to avoid contact with the authorities.

All tested negative for the virus at the airport but subsequently failed to report their health condition and did not respond to location-monitoring apps or video calls from health authorities, as required under Japan’s COVID-19 protocols.

The Japanese government had said in May that about 100 people a day were flouting the border control rules and signaled that it would soon begin to disclose the names of violators.

Japanese authorities are struggling to adapt their COVID-19 response as caseloads surge to their highest levels of the pandemic and vaccinations continue to lag behind other wealthy nations — and as many members of the Japanese public appear to have tired of the on-and-off emergency measures the government has imposed in Tokyo and other cities since early 2020.

Even as infections rose during an earlier wave this year, and as more infectious variants spread, Japan’s government failed to speed up its vaccination campaign. It has maintained that hosting the Olympics inside a tightly controlled bubble — few spectators, no contact between athletes and the public — did not risk worsening the outbreak.

Although there have been relatively few infections inside the Games — about 300, as of Tuesday — some Japanese people say that seeing the Olympics held in Tokyo has encouraged them to relax against the virus.

Yet the outbreak has gotten worse. On Tuesday, officials said they had recorded more than 8,300 daily cases nationwide, a slight dip from the weekend’s records of more than 10,000. Tokyo reported 3,709 cases, also slightly lower than previous days.

In a sign that the health system is growing overwhelmed, the government said Monday that it would hospitalize only those with severe cases of COVID-19, to avoid increasing the strain on hospitals.

“We will secure the necessary beds for severely ill patients and those at risk of becoming so,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Monday evening after a government task force meeting.

The health minister, Norihisa Tamura, told reporters Tuesday that the change would give the health system “leeway” to ensure that beds were available for people who faced severe illness or death.

“Problems arise when the infection speed is fast,” he said. “We need to respond to provide assistance quickly.”

People infected with the coronavirus who experience mild symptoms would be monitored at home by local doctors, officials said.

The demand for hospital beds was acute: According to official statistics, Tokyo had 3,231 COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals, with 8,270 on the waiting list. Of those in hospitals, 114 patients were in serious condition, officials said.

Yukio Edano, a leader of the largest opposition party, said that the government’s announcement amounts to an acknowledgment that the health system could not care for the majority of patients.

“I have strong anger again that the government’s crisis management is not efficient at all,” Edano said. “‘Treating at home’ is just a phrase, but it really means ‘abandoning at home.’” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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