Photo/Illutration Health minister Shigeyuki Goto explains a new COVID-19 policy in Tokyo on Jan. 24. (The Asahi Shimbun)

When you have to decline something politely, you try to do it in a roundabout way.

If you are turning down someone's request, for example, you might say something like, "I am afraid I am unable to be of any assistance to you at this time."

"Let's remain friends" is a classic response when someone you aren't interested in asks you out on a date.

Now, how do you say "No" to people who want to go to the hospital because they think they may have contracted COVID-19?

A new health ministry directive issued to local governments says to tell people under 40, or those who are unlikely to develop serious symptoms, "It is possible for you to recuperate at home without being seen by a doctor."

But I feel this phrase is meant for all of us, as I understand that it was conceived in anticipation of outpatient services at hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

The word "possible" implies a choice, but I am pretty sure there are no other options in this case.

The directive presupposes that everyone is using a COVID-19 testing kit for self-diagnosis and reporting the result to the organizations concerned while staying put at home.

Until now, we were strongly urged to be seen by a doctor and tested for COVID-19, the purpose of which was to contain the spread of infections. And in the meantime, public health centers tracked the movements of infected people as well as close contacts, urging them against going out.

But such "active epidemiological investigation" has failed, and the situation starting to unfold now is one in which COVID-19 is being dealt with passively, as if it were just a common cold.

It is only natural to adjust response measures in keeping with the peculiarities of the Omicron variant.

But shouldn't we now be learning from the European and American experiences and considering shortening the isolation period for infected people, as well as the self-quarantine period for close contacts? That would make more sense than just letting the situation drag on by treating COVID-19 like a common cold.

Ultimately, whether telling people to recuperate at home or reducing the number of days spent in isolation or quarantine, everything is conditional on people being tested for COVID-19. But how much improvement has been made in correcting the deficiencies in the current testing capabilities?

All I am starting to hear about now is a lamentable shortage of testing kits.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.