TIME FOR GREATER EFFORTS TO CONTAIN WUHAN PNEUMONIA IN JAPAN
When will the Japanese government lift the restrictive measures against the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, including the nationwide closure of all schools? On March 9, a panel of advisors urged that the ongoing measures, under which large-scale public events such as concerts and sports meets, have been cancelled, be maintained for another ten days, through March 19.
Based on the panel’s advice, Minister of Health and Welfare Katsunobu Kato is expected to announce around March 15 the government policies for managing the next stage of the crisis.
The government and the people have done their best to get ahead of the spread of the Wuhan pneumonia, although there were some undeniable initial delays in working out countermeasures. As of March 10, however, the number of Japanese infections stood at 530, with the dead held to 9, excluding those who had been aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess. Meanwhile, deaths from the virus were 463 and 30 for Italy and France, respectively, with those affected in the thousands. The New York Times criticized Japan early on for having failed to effectively cope with the epidemic, but the number of the infected and dead in the US—754 and 22 respectively—has actually now exceeded those in Japan. These numbers would seem to show that Japan deserves at least some credit for having coped reasonably well with the virus so far.
We must of course accomplish much more going forward, but will we really be able to prevent a pandemic? Since January 16, when the first case of infection was recognized in Japan, the danger of nationwide infection has remained unabated. We must continue to work hard and cooperate closely with each other to stem the spread of the virus. Of particular importance at this juncture is the need to protect those who are the most in danger, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. As a nation, we are facing a critical test.
I wish to take a moment here to emphasize the dire importance of making the most of our time and energy, being certain to focus on thoughtful proposals and refraining from complaints. More often than not, complaints lead nowhere. People who constantly complain fail to touch the hearts of others, unable to prompt them to take positive action. One good example, I believe, is Hitoshi Tanaka, former deputy foreign minister under the Junichiro Koizumi administration (2001-2006).
Stern Criticism of Incumbent Administration
Appearing as a guest on BS Fuji’s “The Prime” news show on March 9, Tanaka bitterly criticized the government’s decision to close all schools, claiming that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should have placed top priority on the protection of senior citizens and those with underlying physical conditions.
As mentioned earlier, the risk of infection is much higher for seniors. In that sense, Tanaka is right. However, various hospitals and facilities across Japan have already taken the necessary steps, with an overwhelming number of them having banned visits by those from outside, including family members, since early last month.
Tanaka repeatedly accused Abe of taking a series of ineffective steps and failing to account for them, but Tanaka’s words didn’t go down well with me. He simply should have recommended that the prime minister take effective measures for seniors and the fragile and left it at that. Many pertinent steps have already been taken and shortfalls are being made up for. I don’t think Tanaka’s censorious posture will help to move things forward. Tanaka’s remarks remind me of another incident earlier in his career, which included a stint as deputy foreign minister (2002-2005).
As director-general of the Asia and Oceanic Bureau of the Foreign Ministry, Tanaka held nearly 30 rounds of secret negotiations with North Korea. The North Korean side was headed by a representative identified only as “Mr. X.” Around 2006, Shinzo Abe—who had then taken over as prime minister from Koizumi—intended to go over the full records of the negotiations only to realize that they were missing the minutes for two specific rounds of the unofficial talks. Queried about this, Tanaka replied he had “no knowledge” of the matter. The missing minutes are suspected of including references to a vital agreement under which Tokyo would extend economic cooperation to the tune of \1 trillion (approximately US$9.3 billion) as a prelude to normalizing diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
This in fact was too important a matter for Tanaka to get away with by simply claiming that he “had no knowledge,” but he had already left the ministry by then and Abe apparently decided against pursuing the matter. No wonder Abe never promoted Tanaka to a higher post: obviously he had developed a sense of mistrust of him.
I suspect that such a backdrop may likely have prompted Tanaka to some extent this time to develop the particularly harsh criticism of the Abe administration over the Wuhan virus crisis. Given his critical tone marked by arbitrary accusations of Abe’s anti-virus measures, one finds it difficult to perceive on Tanaka’s part the positive attitude that is badly needed now in our concerted effort to combat the virus.
Yukio Edano and Ms Renho Murata, the duo that leads the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (DPJ), are in the same boat. Although they continue to criticize Abe’s measures imperiously, it is in fact the opposition forces themselves who should be reflecting on their recent actions. This is made clear by looking at the “Dappi-san“ website to see how much time each political party has spent on specific issues.
According to the Dappi analysis, the DPJ devoted nearly 60% of their Diet questioning time in both chambers of parliament to issues involving the annual “cherry-blossom viewing party” hosted by Abe—an unusually high percentage, on a par with the Japan Communist Party. Then on February 17, the DPJ spent the entire 3 hours and 1 minute of its questioning time again focusing on the cherry-viewing party.
February 17 was a hectic day with the fifth government-charted flight having arrived from Wuhan early in the morning, carrying 65 evacuees from the epicenter of the virus outbreak. And yet the DPJ single-mindedly continued pursuing issues relating to the cherry-viewing party as if it couldn’t care less about the epidemic. I seriously question if the top opposition party had any sense of danger over this life-threatening crisis.
WHO Singing China’s Praises
Although belatedly, the DPJ is now beginning to show signs of more readily grappling with the Wuhan virus. That is good news, but I wish to propose to both the DPJ and Tanaka that they cooperate more proactively with the government instead of simply opposing it for opposition’s sake, criticizing it for criticism’s sake. After all, the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party spared no effort as the top opposition party in fully cooperating with the Democratic administration during the crisis that followed the March 2011 megaquake and tsunami.
Making certain there are enough face masks and toilet paper is important, but our politicians—especially our prime minister—must also pay attention to yet another critical issue, i.e. the public relations management of the crisis.
Unbelievably, China is pushing a disinformation campaign designed to make the world believe the Wuhan virus did not originate in China—a typical Chinese modus operandi calling black white. On March 8, the People’s Daily Online reported that the latest daily cases of reported infections were held to just four and that all of them were “imports” from overseas. The Chinese claim they have closely “shared information with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the international community” under the principle of the world being “a community of common destiny” and successfully “prevented a global spread of infection.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus has lauded China for “making the world a safer place by making large-scale efforts to prevent and stem infection.” Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Antoni Guterres praised the Chinese for having “contributed to all of mankind by sacrificing their ordinary lives.”
On March 7, the Chinese government announced it would donate US$20 million to the UN, which it virtually keeps at its beck and call with its enormous financial muscle. China now is disseminating disinformation claiming, of all things, that the Wuhan virus actually originated in the US. Beijing also is playing up the difference between a China that has succeeded in overcoming the virus and a Japan that hasn’t.
Japan has historically born the immediate brunt of troubles originating in China to no small extent, including the ongoing Wuhan virus scare. That is all the more reason why we must sharpen our own ability to disseminate information globally to neutralize China’s false propaganda even as we endeavor to cultivate mutually beneficial ties with our difficult neighbor. Clearly, we must protect our national interests. Whether we will be able to disseminate pertinent information holds the key to our survival and progress in the international community, as we need allies that understand our position and principles.
We must also bear in mind that the limited authority the government currently has in times of crises makes it impossible to implement effective anti-virus measures beyond meekly requesting certain restrictions. We must expeditiously introduce legislation empowering the government to take stronger measures based on the constitution. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 893 in the March 19, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)