Seek Public Understanding under Revised Laws without Relying on Penalties

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Diet Building in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, Japan.

In order to prevent the spread of coronavirus infections, it is essential for the public to be convinced that they should cooperate with countermeasures. The central and local governments should seek public understanding of the importance of such measures without wielding the power of penalties.

Bills have been passed in the Diet to revise coronavirus-related legislation, such as the special measures law to cope with new strains of influenza and the Infectious Diseases Law, in order to strengthen measures against the coronavirus. The bills drew support from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, its coalition partner Komeito and the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, among others.

The main purpose of the revised legislation is to newly establish penalties under the special measures law and the Infectious Diseases Law to enhance the effectiveness of measures to prevent the spread of the infectious disease. Under the revised laws, employers who refuse to comply with orders to suspend their business or shorten their operating hours, and infected people who refuse to be hospitalized, will be subject to non-criminal fines.

So far, such orders have been limited mainly to requests, but they will have a certain level of coercive force under the revised legislation. As long as restrictions on private rights are being tightened further, the government must clarify concrete criteria for the application of penalties on occasions such as giving statements in the Diet, and apply the criteria carefully.

The government had initially included criminal punishment of “a prison term of up to one year or a fine of up to ¥1 million” as a penalty for refusing hospitalization. It had also considered applying criminal punishment for those who do not comply with surveys conducted by public health centers.

The government apparently intended to maintain consistency with penalties of other laws. However, considering the characteristics of the coronavirus, which does not have an extremely high fatality rate, these punishments were too strict.

The LDP and the CDPJ held meetings to amend the bills, changing the criminal punishments to fines that are administrative punishments and lowering the amount of the fines as well. It was a reasonable decision to remove criminal penalties. It is noteworthy that the ruling and opposition parties compromised and reached an agreement.

In order to call for cooperation on preventive measures before a state of emergency is declared, the revised legislation stipulates that the government will issue “priority measures to prevent the spread of the disease.”

It is effective to take measures against infections with the right emphasis on key points before infections become widespread. To mitigate damage to the livelihoods of the people and to the economy, it is necessary to take prompt measures for that purpose.

It cannot be denied that the government’s legislative work was hasty and premature. At a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry panel meeting, several experts opposed punitive measures, saying that such penalties would not prevent the infectious disease from spreading widely. However, their opinions were not reflected in the drafting of the bills.

The revised legislation was enacted after only four days of Diet deliberations, and the government’s statements in the Diet on the necessity and effectiveness of the penalties lacked persuasiveness. These were apparently influenced by the fact that the government and the ruling parties took an unusual approach of prioritizing the passage of the revised legislation ahead of the budget proposal for the new fiscal year.

Some point out that emphasizing penalties could lead to an atmosphere in which people hide their infections or infected persons are discriminated against. The central and local governments must do their utmost to carry out urgent measures such as securing hospital beds and providing support for the operations of public health centers.