November 28, 2020 at 13:10 JST
A doctor in a dedicated ward for COVID-19 patients communicates with nurses through a transparent panel installed as a precaution against infections in Kawasaki’s Tama Ward on April 24. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
The manner in which the government is handling the latest surge in new coronavirus cases is a textbook example of policy failure. By sticking to policy decisions once they are made and then scrambling to make the next move after the situation deteriorates simply will not work.
In a Nov. 27 meeting of its COVID-19 task force, the government moved to further scale down its Go To programs designed to salvage the embattled hospitality industry.
Last weekend, it announced that trips to infection hot spots would be excluded from the Go To Travel campaign. In an additional move, the government also decided to suspend subsidies for trips originating in areas where new cases are spiking, with Osaka and Sapporo on the initial list of targets.
The government's panel of experts dealing with the public health crisis on Nov. 25 recommended a temporary suspension of the Go To Travel campaign.
But the government turned down the proposal. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Nov. 26 refused to answer reporters’ questions about the matter and left, as if escaping.
In his policy speech at the outset of the current Diet session, Suga pledged to “prevent an explosive growth of infections at any cost.” But Suga has so far focused his COVID-19 policy responses mainly on efforts to keep the economy from tanking.
We fully understand that he is facing tough and complicated decisions.
But it should now be clear to all policymakers tackling this challenge that they must place priority on containing infections when they spot dangerous signs of the virus spreading and wait for the situation to improve before reopening the economy, gradually. This approach is the best cure for the weakened economy.
But the Suga administration appears to be ignoring this clear lesson from the first and second waves of cases that hit the nation in spring and summer and is refusing to learn from the mistakes the government made in handling the crisis.
The government’s poor communication with its experts is not the only matter that makes us uneasy. We have seen the central government and some prefectural governors passing the buck back and forth. This is only making the situation more chaotic at a time when close cooperation between the central and local administrations is vital.
Right now, the central and local governments must make all-out efforts to prevent medical institutions from being overwhelmed by the burden of treating COVID-19 patients.
In this fresh and third outbreak, the number of serious cases is rising markedly.
The nation is on the brink of having an acute shortage of doctors and nurses that will make it difficult to provide adequate care for patients with other health issues.
The central and local governments need to work with the medical community to avert disaster through steps like dispatching medical experts to hospitals facing a serious shortage of doctors and nurses from those that are still able to support other institutions.
Experts have also pointed out that is may not be possible to accurately track the the capability of hospitals to treat patients.
As a key indicator for measuring the risk of hospitals being overwhelmed, the government uses the hospital bed occupancy ratio--calculated by dividing the number of beds expected to be available for COVID-19 patients by the number of beds already occupied.
But accepting new patients means adjusting staff deployment and shift plans in advance. Debate on related issues based on the occupancy ratio alone could be divorced from the reality.
Taking appropriate measures requires accurate information and a solid assessment of what is happening on the ground. Policymakers should do more to confirm and share the latest data on what is really happening at hospitals.
Another serious problem is that health care workers have faced verbal and other abuse. This is raising concerns about a possible increase in medical professionals quitting their jobs.
If people working on the front line of efforts to protect lives are driven into isolation and despair, society itself would collapse.
There is urgent need to provide support to medical institutions and improve the working conditions of health care workers.
--The Asahi Shimbun. Nov. 28
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