July 22, 2020 at 12:11 JST
Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of the coronavirus pandemic, reports on the government’s plan to extend the state of emergency at the Lower House Committee on Rules and Administration on May 4. (Takeshi Iwashita)
The recent resurgence of COVID-19 infections is prompting louder calls for revising the nation's special measures law for fighting the pandemic.
But when it comes to which provisions to change, and how and when, there is no consensus among the proponents--namely, the National Governors' Association, Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of COVID-19 measures, and chief Cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga.
They are all calling for revision, but their talking points vary subtly.
After lifting the state of emergency in late May, the Abe administration urged the public to prepare for a second wave of infections. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put off examining the central and local governments' pandemic-control performances.
And by closing the Diet session early, Abe effectively forfeited the legislature's chance to discuss the pandemic in greater depth.
The current state of confusion owes to Abe's irresponsible politics.
The special measures law has invited a good number of questions and criticisms.
For one, there are no provisions for the payment of appropriate compensation to businesses that comply with the government's shutdown requests, and the law itself is unenforceable.
While the nation was under the state of emergency, many local governments paid what was called "kyoryoku-kin" (cooperation money) at their discretion.
But the amount was limited, and coupled with the fact that the sum varied according to the fiscal health (or lack thereof) of each government, the arrangement was a disappointment for many.
Nishimura has repeatedly expressed his intention to consider fining businesses that refuse to comply with government requests. But his "penalty without compensation" approach is hardly likely to win the public's broad support, nor prove effective in preventing infections.
Suga on July 19 stated that the payment of compensation will be "ultimately necessary" in reference to the legal revision. That's one step forward, but still way overdue, as Suga said this matter will not be discussed until the pandemic is over.
Work should begin now to determine the conditions and compensation needed to restrict the freedom of businesses in the name of public health.
Also untouched is the tough issue of sorting out and coordinating the roles of the central and local governments.
Right after the declaration of the state of emergency, the central government and the Tokyo metropolitan government disagreed on the extent to which businesses should be asked to shut down, causing a delay in the nation's initial response.
According to a survey of all 47 prefectural governors, the results of which were reported by The Asahi Shimbun in June, 21 governors--nearly half--cited "clarification of general coordination by the central government and the authority of prefectural governors" as an issue needing to be addressed.
On the matter of requesting businesses to temporarily shut down, the central government continues to require local governments to "consult the central government in advance."
But in the above-mentioned survey of prefectural governors, one governor commented that the central government's requirement "hampers local governments from reaching decisions quickly, as well as from making decisions based on their own specific needs."
The state of infections and the health care system varies from district to district, and it is vitally important that the local government, which knows the situation best, be able to act autonomously.
At the same time, it will also be necessary to have some setup in place that would keep the prefectural governor's authority in check, so that any inappropriate decision by the governor can be blocked as needed.
The flaws of the special measures law did not become apparent until the law was put to use. It is for politicians, who are responsible for protecting the lives, health and property of the people, to identify the problems and quickly correct them.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 22
Visit this page for the latest news on Japan’s battle with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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