Much of Japan will enter a state of emergency Tuesday, as the country struggles to rein in the coronavirus pandemic, months after the first domestic cases were reported.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that “basic economic activity” will continue in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka, the seven affected prefectures, with public transport and supermarkets remaining open, but urged people to exercise social distancing and avoid unnecessary trips.
The state of emergency was formally announced at a press conference on Tuesday, and its its expected to last for approximately one month. The declaration comes as Japan reported 252 new cases of the coronavirus and seven more deaths Monday, bringing the total number of infections to over 4,600, with 91 deaths.
Abe has faced criticism for not activating emergency measures earlier, as experts warned the true number of cases could be far higher than the official statistics suggest, due to a lack of widespread testing.
The Japanese capital Tokyo is among one of the country’s worst hit areas, and on Monday doctors in the city declared a state of medical emergency, citing a possible collapse of the healthcare system.
Ozaki Haruo, president of the Tokyo Medical Association, told reporters Monday that the rising number of coronavirus cases could result in a shortage of beds and the spreading of the virus within hospitals, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
When this happens, medical staff will be unable to provide services to critically ill patients, Ozaki said, adding that the next six weeks will be critical in preventing an “explosive spread” of the virus.
Japan only has seven intensive care beds for every 100,000 people, a fifth of the proportion available in the US.
Part of the problem is that authorities had previously been urging anyone with symptoms to go to hospital, putting additional strain on the health care system. However, Dr. Yoshihiro Takayama, an infectious diseases specialist at Okinawa Chubu Hospital, said that the authorities are preparing to shift to a new policy of requiring those with mild symptoms to “self-isolate at home.”
Takayama was concerned however that the number of cases could be far greater than it appears from the official statistics, due to the paucity of testing nationwide.
As of last week, Japan had only conducted some 30,000 tests, compared with almost 400,000 carried out in neighboring South Korea.
“In some cases, the number of patients may be several times, or could be ten times more. I think it is necessary to use such imagination and prepare the medical system to deal with it,” Takayama said. “The battle has only just begun.”
The country is also facing a potential shortage of ventilators for the worst affected. As of February, Japan was estimated to have more than 22,000 ventilators, for a population of over 126 million, according to a report in NHK.
At least 40% of those ventilators are already in use, as officials scramble to ramp up production and source new machines from overseas.