Opinion

Japanese Response to Covid-2019: Too Little, Too Late

The Princess Diamond should be a lesson for all: too many missteps will be a slippery slope to disaster.


As guests enjoyed the theater shows, crowded the bars, and dined at large buffets, the virus was already sweeping through the cruise ship. Unbeknownst to the passengers, the virus would then incapacitate the entire ship, leaving it stranded at sea for weeks as officials scrambled to contain its spread. As passengers continued to mingle and eat together, the virus continued to permeate through the enclosed spaces, and further delays by health officials turned the idyllic cruise ship into an epidemiological disaster. It took several days after the first case of the coronavirus was announced before the lockdown took place, and ten people had already been infected. Many passengers with symptoms were not tested, and those who entered and exited the ship worked without protective gear. Crew members, often four to a room, continued to work despite some becoming sick as well. Those with windowless cabins were allowed out periodically for fresh air, and not everyone kept their distance or wore masks. Passengers had little to no information about the situation; many receiving news from social media and news rather than ship’s officials themselves. Some were within close proximity with suspected infectious people: they feared they would become infected by remaining on the ship. Cases began to double daily, multiplying each day at a terrifying rate, becoming the second largest region of cases after mainland China. Thus, WHO rendered the ship as its own category:  “International Conveyance,” with 634 cases. 

An infectious disease specialist from Kobe University, Iwata Kentaro, criticized the measures taken during the lock down, describing the situation as “completely chaotic,” and infection control management was poor. He had posted a Youtube video documenting the errs of the lock down, and took it down afterwards, citing a violation of the ship’s chain of command. (New York Times). In the video, he stated that people were continuously passing through infection free “green zones,” and infectious “red zones,” without taking protective measures, which would lead to possible secondary contamination.  He also criticized the delay in bureaucratic measures that prevented him from entering the ship earlier. He criticized the bureaucratic control, stating that there was “nobody,” in charge of infection control aboard the Diamond Princess. Unlike other countries, there is no agency equivalent to CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Japan; the current crisis is managed by the Japanese Ministry of Health. 

This is possibly attributed to Japan’s lack of experience with viral diseases: while neighboring regions have experience with SARS in 2003, Japan was unaffected by the SARS outbreak, with 0 reported cases. In comparison, Hong Kong and Taiwan have taken drastic measures by delaying school, cancelling public events, closing borders, controlling medical supplies, and issuing government-sponsored information campaigns. Both regions had the most SARS cases and deaths besides mainland China. 

Citizens from different countries began to raise concerns to their respective governments as cases increased at a terrifying rate. US officials were the first to announce repatriation of American citizens on Diamond Princess. Canada, UK, South Korea, and Italy similarly stated measures to evacuate citizens from the Diamond Princess. 

As the 14-day quarantine ended, thousands of passengers disembarked in Yokohama following the blue tarp tunnel last Wednesday. Without a specific plan for transporting such passengers to their homes, many boarded taxis, buses, and trains. Some officials have criticized the decision to let the passengers return after the quarantine; others disagreed, stating a fear of further rebuke. Media crowded the port; many were without masks while reporting or taking photos of the disembarked passengers. 

Just one day after the end of the quarantine, two Japanese passengers died from the Covid-19 infection. They had been taken off the ship before the end of the quarantine to be treated. Both were senior citizens with underlying preconditions.  On Sunday, another man, also in his eighties, had died from the infection. 

A few days after the end of the quarantine, Tokyo Games Committee Chief, Mori Yoshiro, stated that he “prays everyday that the coronavirus will vanish,” and he has “no plans to wear a mask,” in a press conference. He further criticized rumors being spread about delaying or cancelling Tokyo 2020 due to the virus, and emphasized that the executive board is currently implementing measures in response to the virus. His comments infuriated online audiences; his name trended for a few hours after news of the press conference were aired. One stated, “I cannot trust his words,” and another stated, “His comments are a bad example.” 

Small clusters have appeared across Japan, such as cases appearing in Hokkaido, which experts suspect are connected to Sapporo’s annual snow festival. Two boys were infected, and the disease was transmitted to their father. A week later, some schools were closed after further cases were reported. A JR train worker was also infected as well, prompting concerns about Tokyo’s public transportation and whether control measures are being implemented properly. As cases continue to rise in Japan, public events have been cancelled or delayed. The government must further implement measures before the situation escalates and community spread is rampant. With many hard to trace cases and delayed bureaucratic procedures seen on the Diamond Princess, it is not a question of if, but when the situation spins out of control.

 

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