Photo/Illutration A shopper looks at empty shelf at a grocery store in Tokyo on March 26. (AP Photo)

In response to a spike in new coronavirus cases in Tokyo, Governor Yuriko Koike has asked residents in the capital on March 25 to work from home and refrain from going out at night and on the coming weekend.

Neighboring prefectures have also decided to follow suit.

Freedom of mobility is an important human right, but the current situation requires all individuals to act in line with the request to help curb the spread of the new infection.

There have been reports of consumers stocking up on foodstuffs and other daily necessities, emptying store shelves. Such behavior causes social anxiety and entails the risk of catching the virus in crowded stores.

Consumers need to maintain their calm in this critical phase of the outbreak.

The government on March 26 set up a special headquarters to supervise the nation’s fight against the virus under a revised special measures law to allow Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency. The government needs to make effective responses to the galloping epidemic based on appropriate analyses and forecasts of the situation while providing sufficient information to citizens.

In particular, the government should focus its efforts on enhancing the ability of the nation’s health care system to deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients.

In some areas, local medical institutions designated to handle infectious disease cases are running out of beds for patients.

To ensure adequate medical treatment for coronavirus patients, it is vital to obtain cooperation from hospitals and clinics.

But many such institutions are reluctant to accept coronavirus patients because of concerns about the consequences of hospital-acquired infections including rumors that damage their businesses.

The government should consider systems to reward medical institutions that deal with coronavirus cases and compensate for any damage they might suffer as a result of accepting patients.

It is obviously crucial to ensure that such institutions will be given precedence in receiving supplies of masks, gowns, gloves and other protective gear to protect doctors and nurses working at these institutions.

The government also needs to take steps to prevent a shortage of ventilators needed to treat patients suffering severe symptoms as well as their operators.

Another urgent challenge is to create a system to allocate patients who need hospital care to different institutions according to the severity of their conditions.

Osaka Prefecture operates a “hospitalization follow-up center” program, which is designed to facilitate necessary communication and coordination for hospitalizing coronavirus patients based on constantly updated information about the numbers of beds available at hospitals. This program offers a good example for local governments across the nation to follow.

Cooperation across prefectural borders should also be considered where necessary for swift transportation and hospitalization of patients.

The health ministry has announced a policy of asking patients with mild symptoms to stay home for isolation and recovery when the number of cases increases sharply.

The ministry should figure out issues related to this policy, such as which facilities--public health centers or hospitals--should be responsible for monitoring the conditions of such patients. Other issues related to these patients include what kind of daily life support, such as provision of meals, should be provided to them and where and how they should receive necessary care when their conditions become serious.

There are cases where it is difficult for such patients to stay at home because of the presence of high-risk family members, such as elderly people, and other reasons. It is therefore necessary to secure facilities where patients with mild symptoms can stay. Depending on how things pan out, it may also become necessary to build makeshift hospital wards.

All these challenges can only be tackled effectively if there is close cooperation among the central and local governments and related organizations.

A recent increase in the number of patients who had no known risk factors, such as having traveled to an affected area, indicates that an explosive growth of cases could occur at any moment in Japan.

The entire nation needs to share the recognition of this dire situation and sense of urgency for joint national efforts to overcome this growing crisis.


--The Asahi Shimbun, March 27