All eyes on Osaka Pref.’s coronavirus battle

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura speaks at a press conference in Chuo Ward, Osaka, on Wednesday.

Osaka Prefecture’s attempts to combat the latest surge in novel coronavirus infections will be closely watched by other prefectures grappling with their own spikes in case numbers.

The state of emergency was lifted in Osaka Prefecture on Feb. 28, three weeks before the same step was taken in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Since then, coronavirus cases have rapidly increased in Osaka as people resumed more social activities. This prompted the prefectural government to ask the central government on Wednesday to allow it to implement emergency-level measures to prevent the spread of the virus. But what impact these stronger measures will have as coronavirus cases rebound across Japan remains unclear.

“We calculate this surge in cases will eclipse the ‘third wave’ of infections,” Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said to reporters at the prefectural government building on Wednesday. Yoshimura was clearly alarmed by the swift deterioration of the coronavirus situation in his prefecture.

After the lifting of the state of emergency, new infection cases in Osaka Prefecture topped 200 on March 24, then climbed to 300 on March 26, 432 on March 30 and 599 on March 31. The latest figure is around the same level as that seen in early January, before the state of emergency was declared. Some estimates suggest Osaka could reach almost 900 new cases per day in early April if the current rate of increase continues.

After the emergency was lifted, the prefectural government asked restaurants in Osaka City to continue shortening their business hours and close by 9 p.m. This step had been expected to prevent a rebound in infections to some extent, but it appears to have fallen short of expectations.

Impact wearing off

Yoshimura decided on Sunday evening to ask the central government for permission to implement the emergency-level measures. Yoshimura personally telephoned Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of economic revitalization and measures against the coronavirus, to make this request. “That was a bolt from the blue,” a senior Osaka prefectural government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Yoshimura’s bold move came amid rising concern that the impact of asking restaurants to close early was fading. This measure had flattened the infection curve during the second and third waves and brought case numbers down, but this time, infections in Osaka City have continued to rise even while restaurants are keeping business hours short. There also is mounting criticism of the timing of the prefecture’s request to end the state of emergency.

“Lifting the emergency at that time was clearly a step too far,” said Kindai University Faculty of Medicine Prof. Koichiro Yoshida, an expert in infectious diseases. “After that, insufficient precautions were put in place. As a result, lifting the emergency fired the starting gun for people to rush back out into the city all at once.”

Center of attention

The central government has been cautious about approving stronger prevention measures for tackling the coronavirus. The first step was to closely watch how each governor had handled the coronavirus situation in their prefecture. The government had kept a close eye on infection trends in Osaka Prefecture, but the mood has changed as infection case numbers surged. “The infection situation is at the level that a state of emergency could be declared,” one government official said, sharing a view that is starting to gain traction.

Quickly approving the prevention measures is aimed at avoiding the need to again declare an outright state of emergency. Just what impact this will have in Osaka Prefecture holds the key to determining what other infection prevention measures could be implemented in the weeks ahead.

Tamura warns of ‘new fight’

The resurgence in infection numbers across Japan has alarmed Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Norihisa Tamura.

“I am acutely aware of this situation. A new fight [against the virus] has started,” Tamura said Wednesday at the start of a meeting with an advisory body tasked with examining measures to combat the coronavirus.

Infections soared in Miyagi, Yamagata and Okinawa prefectures from early to mid-March. New infections also have been trending upward in the Tokyo metropolitan area, where the state of emergency ended on March 21. “Infection numbers are increasing again in Osaka Prefecture and [neighboring] Hyogo Prefecture. There are concerns numbers could quickly rise also in the Tokyo metropolitan area,” the advisory body reported.

Since the state of emergency ended, many people have suddenly resumed moving around and taking part in social activities. Infections among young people have been rising in many areas, and members of the advisory body are worried that the disease could spread even further.

“Many people got fed up with refraining from going out and doing things during the long state of emergency,” one member of the body said. “After the emergency ended, outings and restaurant usage shot up.”