TOKYO, 20 July 2021 (AFP) – From the outbreak of an infection on a ship to the long saga of the Tokyo Olympics, postponed for a year and starting this Friday (23), Japan’s fight against the pandemic has struck an international mark from the beginning. level has attracted attention. .
The country was initially singled out and criticized for its slow response to COVID-19, but the Japanese archipelago has so far recorded nearly 15,000 deaths from the disease, far fewer than other countries. At the same time, it managed to avoid the strict imprisonment that other countries had to suffer.
Japan was one of the first countries, other than China, to detect a case of COVID-19 and began testing people from Wuhan long ago. But the matter took on new relevance in February 2020, when the Diamond Princess cruise ship was abandoned off the coast of Yokohama, near Tokyo.
With hundreds of passengers and crew positive and 13 dead, Japanese officials have been widely criticized for demanding that everyone stay in quarantine while the virus spreads through the vessel.
On Japanese soil, the government told residents to limit testing if they showed symptoms of COVID-19, a decision that sparked intense debate.
As the pandemic progressed, the situation worsened altogether: in March 2020, the Olympic Games were postponed, something unprecedented in peacetime. A state of emergency was declared in Tokyo, before being extended to the entire country.
– Slow vaccination – this state of emergency, which never materialized in the total lockdowns announced in other parts of the world, called on people to stay at home, though without any real restrictions for those who had otherwise decided to do.
When the first state of emergency ended in May 2020, people in Japan almost resumed normal life, maintaining a certain discipline and wearing a mask under all circumstances, while the Japanese border remained closed to foreigners.
In the Japanese summer of 2020, the situation seemed to be under control and there were government campaigns that encouraged people to travel within the country and to restaurants more often.
But like in other parts of the world, winter hit hard and a second state of emergency was imposed in January 2021. The ban was maintained for most of the period leading up to the Olympics.
The deteriorating health situation fueled growing opposition to the Olympic Games in Japan, and rumors of the event’s cancellation took hold, but this was denied by the organizers.
While vaccination began in the United States and the United Kingdom, things progressed very slowly in Japan, the world’s third-largest economic power.
Pfizer’s vaccine was not approved until mid-February after clinical trials in Japan, and vaccination began with caution, first for healthcare professionals and then for the elderly.
The momentum picked up from May, but a week before the opening of the Olympic Games, only 20% of the Japanese population had been fully vaccinated and the organizers decided to ban spectators from nearly all Olympic venues for the first time in Olympic history. . sport.
– “Individual effort” – According to experts, Japan has benefited from mentally preparing its population for such a virus.
“People were not reluctant to wear masks. They already had basic hygiene knowledge and practice,” Haruo Ozaki, head of the Tokyo Medical Association, told AFP.
But there were gaps, according to Kenji Shibuya, a public health expert who heavily criticizes the health response given by Japanese officials.
“The government has relied heavily on individual efforts, particularly with testing and vaccination, rather than proposing a science-based approach,” said Shibuya, who left major operations in the UK to run a vaccination center in Fukushima.
According to Ozaki, Japan’s response was also hampered by the absence of an independent agency responsible for infectious diseases or a system that would guarantee hospital beds.
“The willingness of the population to take personal responsibility in fighting the pandemic was diminished by the period of the crisis,” Shibuya said. Now “frustration builds,” he says.