Unable to tame a third wave of coronavirus infections after a month-long state of emergency, Japan announced Tuesday it is extending the emergency for another month. The move comes despite a mounting toll on the economy and the threat of bumping up against the country's Summer Olympics preparations.
Thanks to the current emergency, which began Jan. 8 and covers areas that are home to more than half the country's population, "the number of new COVID-19 patients nationwide is heading downward," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told Parliament, "but we need to continue this trend and decrease the number of people in hospitals," including severe cases.
The state of emergency requests residents to cut unnecessary outings and businesses to shorten hours. There are currently no penalties, but the government is going to legislate fines for violators.
While new case numbers have come down in recent days, many hospitals remain overwhelmed.
Dr. Hideaki Oka, an infectious disease expert at Saitama Medical University outside Tokyo, says his hospital is overwhelmed and has to ration care.
"We have four ICU beds for severe cases, and all are occupied by COVID patients," he says. "The severe cases are occupying beds for patients with moderate symptoms in the regular ward, so we can't take any more patients."
Oka says hospital staff are burned out, and he fears they may quit in droves.
"Japan's health care system is going to be destroyed by human resource and finance problems," he laments.
Japan's health ministry says that thousands of confirmed COVID-19 patients are convalescing at home, with many turned away from hospitals. Nearly 200 patients have died at home, national broadcaster NHK reports, based on police figures.
Such a crisis might seem unlikely in an affluent nation that has kept total COVID-19 cases under 400,000 and boasts the highest ratio of hospital beds to population among the developed economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Most of the country's hospitals are small or mid-sized private facilities. According to a health ministry survey reported by the Japan Times, only 23% of private intensive-care hospitals are accepting coronavirus patients, despite government financial incentives.
Then there's Japan's leadership, which, earlier in the winter, continued to promote and subsidize domestic tourism, even as cases spiked. Politicians including the prime minister attended dinner parties while admonishing ordinary citizens to exercise restraint and avoid large gatherings.
The extended state of emergency is due to end just 18 days before the Olympic Torch Relay begins next month. Despite mounting pessimism that the games can be held amid the pandemic, Tokyo games organizing chief Yoshiro Mori defiantly predicted: "We will hold the Olympics, regardless of how the coronavirus [situation] looks."