Can new organization eliminate bureaucratic sectionalism?

It is appropriate to aim to eliminate bureaucratic sectionalism and strengthen the central government’s authority to solve issues that have been highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. The central government will be tested as to whether it will be able to make a new organization into a truly functional command center.

A government panel of experts studying the nation’s coronavirus control measures has compiled proposals. It stated that the government’s response over the past 2½ years has been problematic in its “decision-making process, including its relationship with experts,” and in its “assessment and analysis based on scientific knowledge.”

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, there was discord between the central and local governments over the scope of requests to suspend business operations, among other issues. In some cases, there was a lack of communications between the central government and experts. The central government repeatedly asked medical institutions to secure hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, but only a limited number of medical institutions responded to the requests.

The panel may have raised awareness of the fact that the authority of the central government does not extend to giving orders to local governments and hospitals in an emergency.

Based on such recognition, the panel emphasized, “There is a need to set up a command center to supervise infection control measures.” In response to the proposals, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a press conference that the government will establish a crisis management agency at the Cabinet Secretariat to deal with infectious disease control measures in an integrated manner.

However, establishing an organization alone cannot solve complicated problems.

Currently, the central government declares a state of emergency under the law on special measures for new types of influenza, which has served as part of the foundation for COVID-19 measures. However, the authority to implement specific measures against infectious diseases, such as requesting dining establishments to shorten their working hours, is left to prefectural governments.

The Cabinet Secretariat plays a coordinating role in measures against the coronavirus. However, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is in charge of implementing quarantine measures based on the Infectious Diseases Control Law and approving vaccines and drugs.

Will establishing a new organization facilitate coordination among these administrative organizations? Will it be able to speed up vaccinations and the approval of therapeutic drugs?

To improve measures against infectious diseases, the central government must prioritize efforts to identify problems and review authorities and roles. And then, discussions should be made to form a necessary organization.

The government also needs to solve problems at public health centers, which have many tasks, such as identifying close contacts and coordinating hospitalization.

Citing a shortage of nurses who can deal with infectious diseases, among other examples, the proposals stressed the need for “preparations from normal times.” The panel also called for strengthening research and development of vaccines, drugs and medical equipment, and the production systems for them.

Since the outbreak of the new type of influenza in 2009, a panel of experts at the health ministry has called on the central government to take a number of measures to prepare for the next infectious disease, including strengthening PCR tests and securing medical supplies. However, these suggestions were not put to good use.

The central government must not make the same mistake again. It should make steady efforts to take advantage of lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 16, 2022)