Cruise outbreak to Olympics: Japan's pandemic battle

Tokyo (AFP) –


From a cruise ship outbreak that focused international attention on the virus, to wrangling over the Olympics, Japan's experience of the pandemic has been squarely in the spotlight from the start.

Alternately criticised for its response and held up as a model, Japan has recorded around 15,000 virus deaths while avoiding lockdowns.

It was one of the first countries outside China to detect a virus case, and began testing arrivals from Wuhan early on.

But the outbreak took on a different cast in February 2020, when the Diamond Princess cruise ship was put in quarantine off the city of Yokohama.

Hundreds of people on board tested positive and 13 died, with Japanese authorities heavily criticised for insisting passengers and crew stay on the boat, where the virus continued to spread.

Domestically, the government's policy focused on asking people to stay home if they felt sick while limiting testing -- a decision that was ferociously debated.

Advocates argued mass testing was an imperfect tool that could overwhelm medical centres and wouldn't change the anti-infection measures everyone needed to observe.

But critics warned low testing levels limited visibility over how the virus was spreading, and hampered efforts to contain it.

As the pandemic worsened, the unthinkable happened: in March 2020, the Olympics was postponed. A state of emergency was later announced in Tokyo and would eventually expand nationwide.

- Slow vaccine rollout -

The measure was far less strict than the lockdowns in place elsewhere, mostly asking people to stay at home, but imposing no legal requirements or punishments.

When it ended in May, people picked up something resembling normal life, following guidance to "avoid the three Cs" -- close contact, closed spaces and crowded places.

Mask-wearing, already common in Japan, was almost universal, and throughout the summer things seemed under control, with government campaigns even promoting domestic travel and eating out.

But as in many parts of the world, the winter hit hard and a second state of emergency followed in January. Restrictions were in place for most of the run-up to the Olympics.

The worsening situation fuelled growing opposition to the Games, and rumours spread of a possible cancellation, but were quickly shot down.

As vaccine rollouts began in the United States and Britain, things moved slower in Japan.

The Pfizer formula was only approved in mid-February, and inoculations started cautiously, first for medical workers and then the elderly.

The pace picked up from May, but a week before the Games just 20 percent of Japan's population was fully vaccinated, and organisers opted to ban spectators from almost all competition for the first time in Olympic history.

- 'Individual effort' -

Overall, experts say, Japan benefitted from having a prepared population.

"People didn't have any resistance to mask wearing. The public already had the general hygiene practices and knowledge," Haruo Ozaki, head of the Tokyo Medical Association, told AFP.

"People faced the virus with proper levels of concern. That helped drive down the number of infections in Japan," he said.

But there were shortcomings, according to Kenji Shibuya, a public health expert and regular critic of the Japanese government response.

"The government relied too much on people's individual effort, rather than providing scientifically sound approaches including testing and getting them vaccinated," said Shibuya, formerly of King's College London and now director of the Soma Covid Vaccination Medical Centre in Fukushima.

Ozaki said Japan's response was also hampered by the lack of an independent infectious disease agency or a system for securing hospital beds quickly.

"Japan... neglected infectious diseases as something affecting developing countries," he said.

And while Japan moved fast to close its borders and take virus measures, people's willingness to take responsibility for curbing infections has frayed as the pandemic drags on, Shibuya added.

"There's a growing frustration," he said.

"I think there should be a clear message from the top that we will control the transmission with massive testing and vaccine rollout very quickly."