The Japanese version of Newsweek published a column in its April 14 issue entitled, “Leaders’ Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis Will be Their Report Cards.” Written by Georgetown University Professor Sam Potolicchio, it read:
This phrase recalls Machiavelli, who would use any means to his end, but its accuracy is backed by history. From time immemorial, only those who skillfully dealt with grave crises made their marks on history as great leaders. Without exception, world-renowned leaders have experienced wars and economic crises.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the worst crisis since World War II, in terms of its many victims (it is possible that millions of people will die around the world over the next 18 months) and economic impacts (the global economy has already plunged off a cliff).
For all leaders across the globe, the extremely challenging COVID-19 outbreak is a chance for their names to go down in history.
It is possible that the novel coronavirus is a manmade virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. After many people were infected in China, the virus spread to South Korea and Japan, then rapidly expanded to more areas and people including Iran, Europe, and North America. Japan has kept its number of infected persons low through cluster measures that differ from those of other countries, but the number of cases per day already exceeded 100 in late March and has kept increasing since then, mainly in Tokyo. Under these circumstances, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the decision to declare a state of emergency on April 7.
On April 7, the evening edition of The Nikkei ran an article entitled, “State of Emergency Declaration Issued Tonight: Prime Minister Announces Serious Impacts of COVID-19.”
This is the first state of emergency declaration. It enhances the authority of governors, allowing them to ask people to stay indoors and request or order limits on events. It is predicted that the state of emergency will be in effect from 12:00 midnight on April 8 until May 6.
At the Committee on Rules and Administration, Abe stated, “I ask that citizens continue their businesses to maintain social functions, and hope they will fully cooperate with self-restraint and isolation as much as possible.” He emphasized, “Our first priority is safeguarding the health of citizens. We will take thorough measures to halt the spread of the virus in close collaboration with prefectural governments.”
Abe explained that the one-month period was determined in light of factors such as the virus incubation period. He said the number of new cases must decline before the state of emergency is lifted, and that “a suitable decision will be made with input from experts.”
The Advisory Committee on the Basic Action Policy is composed of infectious disease specialists. Discussions on the current outbreak were held at the committee meeting on the morning of April 7.
The members of the committee recognized that the outbreak meets the conditions for declaring a state of emergency prescribed by the Act on Special Measures. Namely, 1) The situation poses the risk of remarkable and significant harm to citizen lives and health, and 2) The nationwide, rapid spread of the virus poses the risk of serious impacts on the lifestyles of the citizenry and the economy. Based on this, they approved the prime minister’s plan.
Abe will officially declare a state of emergency at the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters on the evening of April 7. He will explain the sequence of events behind this decision at the press conference starting at 7:00 p.m., and ask the people for their cooperation.
With this declaration, governors of the seven administrative divisions can now make requests of their people, including asking them to stay home. They can also request that usage be halted of large-scale facilities where many people gather, such as schools, day cares, welfare facilities, movie theaters, and department stores. They can take measures that restrict private rights and send orders, which are more binding than requests, to non-complying business operators who lack legitimate reasons for not following these requests.
This declaration also gives governors the authority to enhance medical systems. They can use properties and buildings without the owner’s permission to establish temporary medical facilities. They can also request that business operators sell medical and pharmaceutical products as well as foodstuffs, and can seize them if the business operator does not comply without justifiable reasons.
Public transportation facilities such as railways and buses will still run after the declaration. Facilities like supermarkets, which sell necessary items for daily life including food and medical products, will also be open for business.
Some stay-at-home orders in other countries impose punishments on violators, but the Japanese state of emergency declaration merely asks citizens to exercise self-restraint. There is no legal basis for shutting down roads, and no city-wide lockdowns can be implemented like in China and other nations. The effectiveness of this state of emergency, aimed at halting the spread of the virus, will depend upon how well citizens and companies cooperate with its requests and instructions.
I believe Abe made a bold decision that would not have been possible in the Japan of the past, although there are some limitations from a legal standpoint.
Until now, Japan has fought the novel coronavirus according to a basic strategy with three prongs: 1) Early detection of and early-stage responses to clusters, 2) Early-stage diagnosis of patients, substantial intensive care for severe cases, and a secure structure for healthcare provision, and 3) Behavior modification by citizens (this advertising term means “having people alter their behaviors”). A government official contacted APA Hotel after 10:00 p.m. on April 4 from the viewpoint of Number 2, a secure structure for healthcare provision. They said, “There is a growing number of COVID-19 patients with positive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests (a highly sensitive testing method that uses extremely small samples). It is likely there will not be enough hospital beds for them. Would APA Hotel take in patients with minor or no symptoms?” It is only natural that APA Hotel, Japan’s largest hotel chain, wants to help during this national crisis, and we readily consented to the request. Many people spoke out in favor of APA Hotel when this was reported by the media. However, we were also told by people living near our hotels that they wanted to be asked for their consent before we took in these patients, due to the slightly elevated risk of catching the disease. We are currently working out the specifics, but the COVID-19 patients will without exception be lodged in hotel buildings that are used for no other guests. The hotels will be divided into zones. Employees will work in the green zones to distribute linens and consumable goods, and interact with external customers via the Internet and telephone. except in the case of a natural disaster or emergency. The patients will take care of their own sheets and towels and make their own beds. Specifically, linen suppliers will leave linens in the hallway in front of the guest rooms. The patients will bring these inside, change the linens, and put used sheets and towels in plastic bags that are left in the hallway. The used linens will be collected and disposed of by a business operator. Meals will also be left in the hallway near the guest rooms by a business operator. The patients will bring them inside, eat, then place the disposable tableware in a plastic bag that is left in the hallway. If we are asked to lodge these patients, we plan to have a sufficient system in place to prevent further infections among employees and other people.
As of April 6, the death toll from the COVID-19 coronavirus exceeds 70,000 people around the world, and the number of cases is about 1.3 million. The death rate is 10% or more of cases in Spain, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. The United States declared a state of national emergency and is experiencing a rapid increase of cases and deaths. Of these, 8% are people from the poor demographic with no health insurance. Many do not receive PCR tests because they cost 1,000 dollars (110,000 yen). The death rate in Japan is about 2.4% of patients, and we have managed to keep both the total numbers and rates to fairly low levels. Abe made a decisive judgement by declaring a state of emergency at this timing.
When the number of cases began rapidly increasing and there was a growing risk that sufficient medical care could not be provided, the government asked APA Hotel and other hotel operators to take in mild and asymptomatic patients, and also declared a state of emergency. It is important to act quickly in these situations; slight delays can cause the virus to spread irreversibly, leading to many more deaths. Some people are criticizing Japan’s measures, saying not enough PCR tests have been administered, but this is incorrect – if everyone was given PCR tests and all infected persons were hospitalized, there likely would not be enough hospital beds for them. The three-pronged strategy I mentioned is aimed at giving priority to hospitalizing the most severe cases as a way to maintain our medical system and reduce the number of deaths, which has been effective. The Japanese state of emergency declaration, according to the revised Act on Special Measures, differs from the American one in that it sets forth no penalties for individuals and is not legally binding. The governors of the designated administrative divisions can merely ask people to stay home, can request or order facilities to close, and can request or order events to be cancelled. This applies to universities, movie theaters, and similar facilities, but they cannot ask hospitals, clinics, supermarkets, and other facilities necessary for daily life to close. Thanks to this declaration, I believe we will be able to avoid an explosion of new cases, and that the state of emergency can be lifted one month from now on May 6. Japanese people are taking the request for self-restraint very seriously, and they are changing their behaviors. Many people in the seven prefectures and beyond are uniting and cooperating, so it seems likely the outbreak will not result in a rapid increase of cases and deaths like in Italy or Spain.
However, we should be aware that we are fighting a war against the coronavirus. We will have to develop a vaccine and effective drugs to win this fight, which will take one to two years. We must make great efforts while being resolved to the fact that this war will continue for some time.
Abe’s name will certainly go down in history if these COVID-19 measures, including the state of emergency declaration, are successful. I keenly hope Abe will take this opportunity to fully exercise his leadership and achieve a breakthrough solution to these difficult circumstances.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson must have been sufficiently cautious about the coronavirus, yet he caught it anyway and was hospitalized, including in intensive care. This virus is a formidable enemy. We must develop an effective vaccine and drugs to treat it as soon as possible to fully banish this threat. The human race has suffered numerous global pandemics in the past. The Black Death plague in the 14th century is estimated to have killed 100 million people, roughly 20% of the world’s population at that time. Some European cities and villages were totally wiped out. During the Spanish flu pandemic that started in 1918, during World War I, 500 million people were infected and it is estimated that between 17 million and 50 million people died. It is thought some 500,000 people died in the Hong Kong Flu pandemic of 1968. More recently, major infectious disease outbreaks are occurring every decade, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002, novel influenza in 2009, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012.
I am always saying that the biggest risks in the hotel industry are pandemics and wars in nearby areas. This COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example – many people are exercising self-restraint and avoiding going outside, and hotel occupancy rates are falling to one fifth of what they were. Some hotels are even shutting down. However, my belief is that we should stay open for business if at all possible in locations with no other nearby APA Hotels, even if occupancy rates are low. I felt the same after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Most hotels in Sendai shut their doors right after the earthquake. People who made reservations had no rooms, and the staying guests were asked to leave. However, APA Villa Hotel Sendai-Eki Itsutsubashi stayed open. There was no electricity or water, so we confirmed that this was acceptable with guests and cut regular prices to half or less to continue renting rooms to those who wanted them. We provided rooms at no cost to individual volunteers who came from across Japan, and also provided lodging to Doctors Without Borders physicians. These people said they were thankful for the shelter, even if there was no power or water, and provided moral support to the employees who were still working at APA Hotels. That experience made me fully realize the necessity of keeping our doors open at all times to people who need our services, and my way of thinking has not changed, even during the current COVID-19 outbreak. As a facility that provides places for people to relax, APA Hotel will always offer rooms to people who want them. Our managers and employees across the country keep this in mind as they do their daily work. And if national or local governments ask for our help, we intend to provide lodging to patients by lending entire hotel buildings in commercial areas and other spots with few people living nearby. I hope to develop and execute precise countermeasures to this unforeseen virus, which we must regard as a national crisis, so we can learn from it in the future. There is talk about cancelling the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to 2021. Right now, APA Hotel and all citizens must join together and work with all our might to overcome this national crisis and win the fight against COVID-19 so the Tokyo Olympics will go on as scheduled next year.
April 20 (Monday), 6:00 p.m.