Yet another wave: Japan’s past & future “emergencies”
So it’s official: the 8th wave is coming! And with it comes the government’s updated plans to request yet more “self-restraint”.
To clarify, the “bed occupancy rate” refers to the small percentage of overall hospital beds the government has “secured” for Covid patients at inordinate cost.
Thankfully, the plans are pretty weak even for the worst-case “state of medical emergency declaration”.
[Governors] will also be able to ask residents to refrain from social trips, event organizers to delay events and companies to drastically reduce the number of employees in offices, among other requests.
But I doubt it’ll even come to that. The key point is below though.
However, schools will continue holding classes, and restaurants and commercial facilities will not be asked to shorten their business hours.
In other words, the Japanese government has no intention of declaring a fifth official state of emergency (SoE) with fines for noncompliant businesses. A “state of medical emergency declaration” carries no legal weight whatsoever and doesn’t give prefectural governors any powers to enforce their requests.
Japan’s constitution prevents the government from legally enforceable lockdown-style stay-home orders, movement restrictions, and gathering restrictions. But like with masks, voluntary compliance has been high with requests for people to stay home and businesses to close (1st & 3rd SoE) or restrict hours/services (2nd & 4th SoE) due to propaganda and peer-pressure. And again like voluntary universal masking, Japan’s “voluntary lockdowns” during the SoEs were given favourable coverage and credited as a reason for Japan’s low Covid mortality in English-language media, especially in 2020. So I might as well take this chance to point out something that’s quite widely understood in Japan but not elsewhere: the SoEs were pointless.
There is a vast scientific literature using various sophisticated statistical techniques to determine the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions during the Covid-19 Pandemic, but I’m going to keep it simple. If an intervention comes after the peak of infections, it’s pointless. And if Rt goes up after an intervention, it’s pointless. Luckily for us, Japan’s Top Modeller Hiroshi Nishiura has been using symptom onset data to plot graphs by estimated date of infection for the last 2.5 years, so we can see how pointless all the SoEs were. (For more context and details about the SoEs, follow the links to my very earliest posts.)
Japan’s first SoE basically consisted of voluntary closures of “non-essential” businesses and requests for self-restraint from leaving the house for non-urgent unnecessary reasons. It was also the only SoE expanded to cover all 47 prefectures after Nishiura predicted 420,000 people would die otherwise. But both the SoE and Japan’s 2-year long xenophobic entry ban came after actual infections had peaked.
But if you look at the graph for PCR positives, the SoE looks effective.
And since that’s what the media showed, the public drew the intended but wrong impression. Politicians also saw a quick and easy way to look proactive and decisive. Which means people in Japan’s major urban areas got to repeat the experience three more times in 2021. Not that I’m bitter, you understand.
The second SoE was declared in Greater Tokyo on 7th January 2021 a week after actual infections had peaked. This time, governors told bars and restaurants (B&Rs) and other businesses to operate until 20:00 rather than close, but it was still completely pointless.
And for extra pointlessness, governors in a few other prefectures didn’t want Kanto governors to have all the fun, so they declared their second SoE a week later, after the pointlessness had become completely apparent.
In response to rising cases, the governor of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, came up with one of Japan’s unique contributions to the long list of stupid Covid rules: the mask dining rule (i.e., people dining out had to wear masks while talking between bites and sips). He also declared another pointless post-peak SoE, in which he told B&Rs to close or open only between 11:00 and 20:00 and not serve alcohol. He also requested various commercial facilities like department stores to close and requested baseball and football games be held without spectators.
In an interview a few days before the SoE took effect, the national government’s Covid Response Experts Committee chairman, Shigeru Omi, admitted infections in Osaka had probably peaked, but said the SoE would “have a psychological effect and send a strong message.” Well worth the economic damage, I’m sure you’ll agree.
One person who did agree was the Wicked Witch of the East, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, who introduced the same SoE restrictions as Yoshimura in Osaka. At least she didn’t mandate mask dining though.
To celebrate the first ever spectator-less Olympics, Koike declared Tokyo’s fourth SoE three weeks after lifting its third to prevent cases rising before the games. Again, she told B&Rs to close or open between 11:00 and 20:00 and not serve alcohol. At least this time the declaration came before the peak. Of course, declaring an SoE too early is a bit like doing a sun dance at midnight: you give away the magic trick.
So what did the Japanese public learn from these repeated failures? That interventions to “stop the spread” are pointless and that the lives-vs-liberty trade-off claimed by the media and politicians doesn’t actually exist? Not quite. Here are results of another poll taken during the fourth SoE asking “Should Japan lock down?” (i.e. introduce strict stay-home restrictions).
So apparently the problem with the SoEs was they weren’t strict enough. Give it to me harder, government!
And if Kishida’s LDP ever get to have their way with the constitution, that’s exactly what the public will get.