Tokyo Edges Toward Tougher Approach As Virus Cases Spread
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike asked residents to stay indoors this weekend as the city strengthened moves to tackle the coronavirus outbreak amid a jump in cases, spurring bouts of panic buying by residents as she warned of a possible lockdown of the metropolis.
Virus cases in Tokyo jumped on Wednesday with 41 newly confirmed infected people, Koike said, a surge in a city that until now has mostly escaped the pandemic. The capital is in a “critical moment” over a potential explosion in cases, she said, and asked that residents work from home and not go out on weekday nights.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday he supported Koike’s request for people to stay home, which came a day after Abe announced the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would be delayed by about a year. Suga also said Japan is in an extremely important time to stop a rapid spread of the virus.
A government panel of experts said the virus is likely to become “rampant” in Japan, Kyodo News reported. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered the establishment of a national task force that would enable the declaration a state of emergency if required, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters.
“I’m asking people to limit their movements,” Governor Koike said on Wednesday. “Unfortunately the situation is worsening.” Japan’s expert panel on the outbreak said Thursday there’s a high risk of the outbreak spreading in the country, Kyodo News reported.
The request from the governor appears to have punctured the relaxed mood in Tokyo. “Panic buying” began to trend on Twitter, with users posting pictures of empty shelves and lines outside supermarkets. At the Don Qujiote supermarket in Nakameguro on Wednesday, customers flocked to grab instant noodles and canned goods in the minutes immediately following Koike’s late-evening speech.
Suga urged people to act calmly, saying he was aware of the shortage of some goods in the capital’s stores. He said the government would work closely with retailers and take action if necessary.
Koike will also ask residents in the neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba to refrain from travel to Tokyo, the Yomiuri reported. Millions commute back and forth to the capital for work or school from these areas. The governors of Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures will also follow Koike’s steps by asking residents to stay indoors this weekend, Kyodo said.
Tokyo has begun to see an up-tick in cases during the past three days, with 16 people confirmed to be infected on Monday followed by 17 on Tuesday. The latest spike makes Wednesday the worst single day of infections found in the city, bringing the tally to 212 among a population of almost 14 million.
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Tokyo now has the most cases of any prefecture in Japan. Koike made headlines earlier this week when she said it was possible the city might yet have to implement a lockdown to control the virus. “The next three weeks are an extremely important turning point to see if there is an ‘overshoot’ of cases,” she said.
“Depending on the change, it is possible that we may have no choice but to take more forceful measures, including a so-called lockdown of the city,” Koike said, calling on citizens to avoid events and crowded spaces.
Japan identified its first case of the virus as early as Jan. 16, and took measures that in late February led to schools being closed, events called off and theme parks shut. Government experts had until this week said the country so far has avoided the type of “explosive” surge in cases that has locked down much of Europe and the U.S.
A combination of warm weather, a holiday weekend and the blooming of the country’s famed cherry blossoms brought crowds out in Tokyo over a three-day period from last weekend, and may have led to an increase in the spread of the virus.
One member of the government’s expert panel on the outbreak said on national public broadcaster NHK Sunday that he was concerned about the mismatch in perceptions between the public and specialists.
“Everyone thinks it’s calmed down in Japan, and there’s a big gap between that and how we feel,” said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University. “That’s what makes the coronavirus extremely difficult.”
The staging of a K-1 martial arts event with thousands of spectators in Saitama prefecture, close to the capital, last weekend sparked alarm. While officials asked organizers to call it off, they pressed ahead.
Across the city, life had begun to return to normal with schools set to resume, as some began to ask if Japan had dodged the bullet that had hit much of the of the world. That appears to be coming to an end as Tokyo moves closer toward other world capitals in lockdown mode.
(Updates throughout with details)
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