Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters about pre-emergency measure in 14 prefectures on Feb. 9 outside the prime minister’s office in central Tokyo. (Koichi Ueda)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida skirted disturbing developments in the sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic now sweeping Japan, including record numbers of deaths, while referring to an “exit” strategy from restrictions during a Feb. 17 news conference.

But Kishida cannot allay the public’s anxiety by simply sugar-coating the situation. In his policy messages, Kishida needs to demonstrate he is fully cognizant of the harsh reality.

The news conference was his first since the latest surge in cases, driven by the Omicron variant, flared. As the pace of the rise of new cases has started slowing, Kishida said the nation should now start the process of “moving gradually toward the exit.”

He announced the government’s decision to lift “man-en boshi” pre-emergency measures for Okinawa and four other prefectures and ease entry restrictions against nonresident foreign nationals. Business travelers, students with a visa to study in Japan and foreign nationals signed up for technical intern training programs will be allowed to enter, with the daily quota for entries to be raised to 5,000 from the current 3,500.

It is a reasonable decision, although made in response to growing pressure from the ruling coalition and business circles, as well as the international community. This should be a first step in a steady expansion of the quota.

But the government also decided to maintain pre-emergency measures in 17 prefectures. Citing the government’s latest strategy for tackling the pandemic announced in November, Kishida asserted there are enough hospital beds to treat patients showing serious symptoms and stressed the nation’s health care system is well equipped to provide the necessary services to deal with the pandemic.

But during the current Omicron wave, there have been cases where patients were denied hospitalization or died while trying to recover at home. The latest wave is also putting a strain on the system’s ability to treat non-COVID patients, especially those who require emergency care.

A clear gap exists between what Kishida said about his COVID-19 policy and the reality of the situation. The administration’s strategy is designed as a response to the wave of cases with the Delta variant and not adjusted to the special characteristics of the Omicron strain.

In answering a question about delays in rolling out third doses of COVID-19 vaccines, Kishida stated that the number of new cases in Japan is far smaller than that of Britain and Israel, which moved faster to provide booster shots. If he wants local governments and businesses to accelerate their efforts to ensure that local residents and employees will receive booster shots as quickly as possible, Kishida needs to demonstrate his keen awareness of the government’s responsibility for the delays.

The Omicron is regarded as far more transmissible than the Delta variant but less likely to trigger serious conditions that require hospitalization. Most of the patients who died after catching the Omicron variant were elderly.

Naturally, some people are deeply concerned about the current expansion of cases while others are relatively optimistic.

It is inherent on a political leader to send out messages that strike a chord with the majority when communicating the aims of government policy accurately to those with a wide range of views in the hope of winning their support.

From this standpoint, Kishida has made a poor job of getting his policy messages across as he has relied on speaking to the media during impromptu chats rather than directly addressing the public.

Kishida seems to have followed the example set by his two predecessors, former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, who only held COVID-19 news conferences when they declared a state of emergency. But Kishida’s approach runs counter to his promise to offer “careful and meticulous explanations” about his policy decisions and actions.

At the Feb. 17 news conference, Kishida also pledged to reconsider his latest decisions whenever signs emerge of a change in the situation. In that case, he should act on the importance of “careful and meticulous” explanations about his change of mind.


--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 19