March 13, 2020 at 14:09 JST
Empty cases for school lunch milk are stacked high in a producer's factory in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on March 6. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
The public environment has undergone radical changes over the past two weeks due to measures that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe abruptly announced, such as calls for voluntary cancellation of large-scale events and nationwide school closures.
These requests, which are cast as policy actions designed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, have left the nation feeling trepidation about the escalating crisis.
The government’s second package of emergency measures to mitigate the impact of the responses to the epidemic features financial aid to people who have been forced to miss work and greater funding support to cash-strapped businesses.
Abe has stressed that the highest priority of the aid package is on maintaining jobs and keeping troubled businesses alive. The package, however, looks like a hasty policy reaction to the unexpectedly large impacts of the steps he has taken to tackle the public health challenge.
Of the total government spending of 430.8 billion yen ($4.16 billion) on the package, 246.3 billion yen will be used to finance measures related to school closures.
In addition to subsidies to companies that employ parents who are forced to take leave from work due to the school closures, the package includes cash payments of 4,100 yen per day under certain conditions to affected freelance workers, who are not eligible for the subsidies through companies, as well as up to 200,000 yen in emergency loans.
Taxpayer money will also be used to cover the costs of canceled school lunches and provide financial support to affected farmers and lunch providers.
With regard to a lingering shortage of face masks, the government will buy 20 million units of washable cloth face masks and distribute them to facilities that need them the most including nursing homes. Reselling masks is banned with violators facing punishment.
The government will also provide 1.6 trillion yen of financial support to cash-strapped small and midsize firms including what are effectively no-interest loans.
But support to businesses suffering sales and profit losses owing to factors other than the school closures appears to be meager by comparison.
More than 60 percent of small and midsize companies are facing declines in sales, orders and customers because of the measures to cope with the epidemic, according to a survey by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The government should keep closely monitoring the situation so that it can take any additional measures if necessary.
It should not be forgotten that many Japanese are gripped by anxiety about the murky outlook of the crisis.
In a meeting of top government policymakers responsible for dealing with the epidemic on March 10, Abe called for a continuation of the voluntary restrictions on events by 10 or so more days.
But he failed to offer specific and clear answers to the biggest questions in many people’s minds, such as what kind of conditions are required for the administration to withdraw its requests for event curbs and school closures.
The coronavirus outbreak has spread globally, disrupting a wide range of business activities and roiling financial markets around the world.
If the stock market rout dents consumer confidence while a stronger yen depresses corporate earnings in Japan, the economy could sink deeper into trouble in a vicious cycle.
The council of experts advising the government on responses to the epidemic has warned about the possibility that fighting the virus may prove to be a prolonged, uphill battle.
It is vital for the government to keep providing accurate and timely information about its measures to ease the effects on people’s lives and the overall outlook of the economy. The government should also unveil convincing plans to keep the economy going while trying to halt the spread of the infection.
Abe needs to step up efforts to offer better explanations about those policy responses to the public, in addition to the reasons for the measures he has taken, through steps such as holding more news conferences.
--The Asahi Shimbun, March 12
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