Japan Insists This Time Is Different Even as Virus Cases Surge

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Coronavirus cases have surged in Tokyo to levels similar to those seen in April, but authorities are stressing that there are no plans to call for business restrictions or to institute another state of emergency.

Tokyo had 124 coronavirus cases on Friday, after recording 107 infections on Thursday. In early April, authorities declared a state of emergency after cases in the capital surged beyond 100 for the first time. That move was the biggest step Japan took to encourage residents to stay at home and businesses to shut their doors.

But this time it’s different, officials insist.

51,174 in U.S.Most new cases today

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-2.​3% Global GDP Tracker (annualized), May

“We are not in a situation where we need to reimpose a state of emergency,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo Friday. “The risk of infection can’t be reduced to zero. We have to control the risk of infection and resume economic activity.”

Officials have pointed to the nature of the current outbreak, with most of the infections impacting young people in their 20s and 30s, who are less likely to need hospitalization.

“The situation is different to last time,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said, according to Kyodo News. “At the peak last time, there were many older people infected.”

Hospitalizations in the city remain low, with 296 people in treatment and just nine listed as serious cases, requiring ventilators or supervision in an ICU. However, the total has risen during June as people returned to workplaces, restaurants and clubs, which have been cited as sources of infection. At one point earlier in the month it had fallen to as low as 204.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, seeking a second term in a vote set to be held Sunday, has made the status of the medical system one of two “pillars” of a new set of monitoring criteria.

“Additional caution is required against the virus,” Koike told reporters Friday. “Protect yourself, don’t get infected and don’t infect others.”

Many infections have so far been linked to nighttime entertainment establishments such as host clubs, and officials have expressed concern that the infection will spread beyond these zones.

Consumer Behavior

During the previous state of emergency, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked people to reduce their interactions with others by 80%. Many businesses in the capital and across the country closed their doors and despite a lack of the fines seen in other nations for disobedience, residents largely followed the calls to stay at home. That helped cut infections in the capital and led to the emergency being lifted in late May.

Tokyo’s situation mirrors those seen in many nations grappling with the need to contain the virus and restart their economies, and cases in the capital still pale in comparison to those seen in many countries.

But the lack of a state of emergency or the comparatively low number of cases themselves may not be the only thing that impacts consumer behavior. A paper by economists Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson found that individuals’ own fear of infection was a far larger factor in driving down consumer behavior than government restrictions during the outbreak in the U.S.

Tokyo residents have been spooked by the increasing number of cases, which just 10 days ago had consistently been around 30. Even without government action, businesses in the world’s largest city that had started to get back to normal and welcome back shoppers may find that consumers will flee home to safety.

Early evidence suggests that consumer behavior is being impacted, with footfall in the bustling area of Shinjuku down by 11% on Thursday compared to the day before, and falling nearly 10% in the transport hub of Shinagawa, according to government data.

— With assistance by James Mayger

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