Japan declared at least a temporary victory in its battle with COVID-19, and it triumphed by following its own playbook.
It drove down the number of daily new cases to near target levels of 0.5 per 100,000 people with voluntary and not very restrictive social distancing and without large-scale testing.
Instead, the country focused on finding clusters of infections and attacking the underlying causes, which often proved to be overcrowded gathering spots such as gyms and nightclubs.
“With this unique Japanese approach, we were able to control this [infection] trend in just 1.5 months; I think this has shown the power of the Japanese model,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared at a press conference yesterday evening announcing the lifting of the state of emergency.
Abe cautioned that lifting the order did not mean that the novel virus was gone from Japan. “Our battle against the virus will continue,” he said, while urging the Japanese people to continue following stringent social distancing guidance.
As of Monday, the East Asian nation had reported 16,628 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Of those infected, 13,612 have already recovered and 851 have died.
Tokyo, the nation’s capital with 14 million residents, was the hardest-hit part of the country, with more than 5,100 cases. On Monday, the city reported just eight new infections.
The Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment by publication.
Despite the lifting of the emergency, the outbreak “is not over,” says Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist and public health expert at Tohoku University.
“I’m expecting small outbreaks from time to time,” he says. Although the government may consider reimposing restrictions, he believes “we can manage these smaller outbreaks.”
Japan got off to a bad start dealing with the pandemic when it quarantined the Diamond Princess cruise ship for 2 weeks in Yokohama after passengers were infected with COVID-19.
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Eventually, 712 of the 3711 people on board tested positive for the novel coronavirus; 14 died.
Meanwhile, the government never made testing the priority it became in other countries.
Japan has conducted 2.2 tests per 1000 people. For comparison, the rate in neighboring South Korea is 16; and in the United States, 43.
The dwindling numbers of new cases led the government to start to lift the state of emergency for much of Japan on 14 May, ahead of the intended 31 May schedule. Yesterday’s announcement completed the lift, relieving Tokyo and four other prefectures.
Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said the coronavirus could change countries’ industrial structure and people’s behaviour.
“It may be hard for things to return to the ways before the pandemic hit,” he told parliament.