MEDIA BIGGEST OBSTACLE TO OUR FIGHT AGAINST WUHAN VIRUS
How will we respond to the message Prime Minister Shinzo delivered at his coronavirus news conference called urgently on March 14? In asking ourselves this question, we Japanese are, in essence, asking how we will fight the deadly Wuhan coronavirus and protect our homeland.
I think Abe spoke very humbly throughout the news conference that followed the enactment of a revised 2013 special measures law, which gave him greater authority to deal with COVID-19. First thanking government and opposition parties for cooperating in passing the bill, Abe explained if a state of emergency needs to be declared, the new law will enable the government to take a variety of measures to thwart a further surge in infections and keep the country running. Abe stressed that these measures have been worked out “just in case.”
Abe continued speaking softly: “In an all-out effort to avoid declaring a state of emergency, the central government has been working closely with local governments and taking steps to prevent a further spread of infection while having to ask the people to persevere through great trouble and inconveniences.” He went on to say he was “very sorry” that, due to abrupt school closures, pupils and students across the country would not be able to attend graduation ceremonies when “they would otherwise be able to make a lot of happy memories at this time of the year.”
The influential medical journal Lancet in its March 9 issue carried an appeal to governments around the world, declaring: “Governments will not be able to minimize both deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the economic impact of viral spread.” In other words, in order to prevent people from becoming victims of the virus, their activities must by all means be restricted. Which will mean absolutely no economic growth. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.
Given this harsh reality, Abe emphasized that top priority must be placed on the prevention of further viral spread, but that, once the dust settles, he will take bold measures based on daring new ideas to put the Japanese economy back on the growth path. To conclude his remarks, he stated:
“I firmly believe that any difficulties can be overcome if we join forces to grapple with them. Yes, we can overcome anything. I firmly believe so.”
Abe thus expressed a high level of trust in the Japanese people, vowing that the government and people will do their best to achieve their goals together. In Europe and the US, where the Wuhan virus is still spreading fast, nothing is more important than governments and the people joining forces in dealing with the infection. Will we in Japan be able to unite our efforts on this end? As the world watches, we are standing at a crossroads.
Listening to the Q&A session that followed the premier’s address, I felt a deep sense of discomfort with the questions from some members of the press. Takayoshi Goto, a senior reporter for the Tokyo-Chunichi Shimbun now serving as secretary to the Cabinet Reporters’ Club, asked: “As prime minister, you are now able to declare a state of emergency, but there is a serious concern among the people about their rights being restricted in that case. Under what circumstances would you declare a state of emergency?”
The last question in the session came fromYasumi Iwakami of an independent web journal named IWJ, and was similar to Goto’s. He asked roughly as follows:
Will freedom of speech and press be guaranteed in a state of emergency? The Prime Minister is very keen on revising the constitution. Aren’t you in any way intending to get the people accustomed to states of emergency as a prelude to implementing the emergency provisions incorporated in the 2018 draft revision of the constitution proposed by the Liberal-Democratic Party? The draft includes sections that would make an “Abe dictatorship” possible. Please explain this point.
Iwakami referred to an “Abe dictatorship” quite casually, but did he question the prime minister with a full understanding of what a state of emergency declaration is all about? Abe is now clearly authorized to deliver such a declaration as the prime minister. But, as Abe has repeatedly explained, the prime minister will ask the opinions of his advisors beforehand. When he went ahead with a declaration, prefectural governors would take it from there, issuing directives to heads of regional autonomous bodies whose job it is to enforce the “restrictions on private rights” referred to by both Goto and Iwakami.
Therefore, the pertinent matter to consider is what concrete measures local autonomous bodies would take to cope with the emergency that would require a restriction of private rights. Representatives of local medical, educational, and business communities would have to communicate well with governors in order to share a common awareness of the issues involved. What would be called into question would be a keen consciousness of the problems involved—and the ability to resolve them—on the part of each community.
But some of these communities may likely be ill-equipped to go about making and executing the necessary decisions. All the more reason for the government to prepare a crisis management manual explaining under what circumstances and what sort of timing emergency measures should be implemented. The pertinent question under this framework, I suppose, would not be whether freedom of speech and press would be restricted but how readily emergency plans for governors and local autonomous bodies could be created and scrutinized.
The day after Abe’s news conference, on March 15, the liberal daily Asahi ran a major article in its city news section with a headline that struck me as odd—Turmoil over Premier’s News Conference Cut Short. Although the article mentioned that a dozen journalists asked questions during the conference that lasted 52 minutes, it sounded as though that had not been enough time.
On the other hand, I was attracted by the title—America’s Self-Shutdown—of the editorial of the Wall Street Journal, dated March 13, delivered to me about the same time. As we know, the Wuhan virus is spreading across the US. On the same day the WSJ carried the editorial, President Trump announced the US government would spend $50 billion for research and the development of vaccines to combat the coronavirus. The editorial ran as the US government, which appeared to have lagged in taking effective initial anti-virus measures, began dedicating all its power to combatting the virus. Its first paragraph read:
American Legacy: A Positive Attitude
“For all the foreboding about the novel coronavirus—foreboding that is justified—
it is heartening to see the American people responding in ways reminiscent of the frontier spirit. Most people are doing what they have to do to survive a clear and immediate threat to their lives and communities.”
Over the centuries Americans have consistently managed to overcome difficulties with their frontier spirit. Each of them has protected himself and his motherland by diligently doing what must be done. The editorial pointed out the great American spiritual heritage is very much alive and well.
As examples of “social distancing,” the editorial cites the following cases: “Private companies, where possible, are advising their employees to work from home. To minimize large crowds…Broadway theaters are closed. Universities are voluntarily replacing in-person classes with online instruction. The list lengthens by the hour.”
Although the stock market has recorded a historic decline, social distancing is expected to make it possible to mitigate the effects of the virus crisis. For now, Americans must persevere because America will not be able to win its war against the virus and still retain its robust economy. The WSJ urges “the relevant authorities in Washington” to inform the American people patiently and precisely “about the purpose and parameters of social distancing.”
A positive attitude marks the backbone of the American spirit. The editorial urges American leaders to speak earnestly to the American people about the importance of joining forces in combating the virus. The WSJ editorial assures the American people that they will be able to get through this ordeal together, but at the same time it does not shy away from urging the authorities to fully inform the people of the enormous economic losses that will be an inevitable consequence of the ongoing battle against the virus. I find this a refreshing manifestation of the American frontier spirit.
As I learned from a March 14 article in the influential economic daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the large losses suffered by the global stock markets this time “would happen only once in 160 billion years,” according to Nomura Securities quant strategist Masanari Takada.
Against the backdrop of the unexpected stock market turmoil and unpredictable behavior of the Wuhan virus around the world, the dynamics of international politics are evolving far beyond our expectations. At such an important juncture in our recent history, how can we afford not to muster our courage to face the future positively? Now is the time for all of us to get our act together.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 894 in the March 26, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)