The novel coronavirus, which broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and has been labeled a health risk since January, is now considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
While “Italy and Iran are in the frontline and are suffering,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva, “other countries will be in that situation very soon.”
To meet the potential threat, the administration Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preparing the legal framework to facilitate a declaration of emergency powers.
More Assertive Measures Expected of Countries
As of March 11, when the WHO called the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic, cases around the world had soared to more than 120,000, with more than 4,300 deaths.
“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock, and we’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that Covid-19 can be characterized by ‘pandemic,’” explained Tedros.
His statement was a step in pushing countries to take more assertive measures against the virus, as he concluded, “All countries can still change the course of this pandemic.”
This came as the United States was approaching 1,000 cases as of March 11. South Korea, which had also experienced a contagion largely connected to a religious community in Daegu, had 7,869 cases and 50 deaths, as of March 12.
Exponential Escalation of the Situation in Italy
Tedros was also clear that most of the cases were coming from specific countries, namely China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy.
The worst of the lot is actually Italy, which, according to the data released by the Civil Protection Department on March 11, had a recorded 12,462 people testing positive for the virus, and 827 deaths.
These are worrying figures showing a rise of nearly 2,000 confirmed cases and 196 deaths in just one day, from just a couple of dozens of cases in late February. Most of these cases come from the northern region of Italy, the initial epicenter of the spread.
The government has responded accordingly with the exponential rise in cases, by calling an initial quarantine on February 22 of just the cities most affected by the virus. Since then, it has spread to the wider region of Lombardy, Piedmont, and Emilia Romagna, among others in the north of Italy. The spread led Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to establish a new red zone, which would extend to the affected regions.
However, there was a mishap when a draft law was leaked to the media, sending thousands of people into panic and trying to make their way out of the quarantine area. Furthermore, critics called attention to the dire situation in hospitals that couldn’t handle the inflow of patients in the ICUs, and called for a more assertive response to the sanitary crisis.
With the end of the contagion nowhere in sight, the Conte administration stepped up efforts further still. On March 9, Conte made an emotional speech calling for Italy to remain united as one, as he called for everyone to remain home, limiting movement in Italy as a whole. Exceptions were made only for those whose work made travel necessary, or had other urgent reasons. They had to submit a certification attesting the reasons for their movement.
But the cases still rose, and the critics along with it. Then came the final push. In the effort to curb the contagion, on March 11, at 9.45 P.M. local time, Conte released a video, asking for all shops, bars, coffee shops, restaurants, barbers, and aestheticians to remain closed until March 25. The purpose, Conte explained, was “all the shops which don’t have strictly necessary goods will be asked to close.” That sentence affected a large chunk of the Italian economy.
Of commercial establishments, only shops selling near-essential products — like pharmacies, supermarkets, tobacco shops, newspaper stands, gas stations, and technical shops for supply chains — were exempted from the request. Conte also gave assurances that institutions — such as banks, postal offices, and insurance companies — would be open as usual. All companies were however encouraged to provide an environment safe for the employees.
Conte concluded the video, commenting gravely, “We need to be distant now so that we can go back to hugging each tomorrow.”
Japan Braces for Potential Emergency Measures
In Japan, Prime Minister Abe’s administration is preparing the legal framework to facilitate a declaration of emergency powers.
Earlier this week, on March 9, the discussion passed a first stage of approval.
Should the legal framework be approved, it would give the Japanese government stronger executive powers and the ability to order local governments to take preventative measures, something which is currently not possible.
This came after Abe, on February 27, called for the closure of all schools starting in early March through the spring break.
Abe had also previously asked companies and individuals to refrain from all large gatherings of people, such as sport and cultural events. The request was reiterated on March 11, extending the ban for 10 days.
As a consequence, big venues — such as sports arenas, museums, amusement parks, and theaters — have all closed for the time being. As of March 11, the popular performances of Takarazuka were also put on hold, and Disneyland Resort announced it would stay closed until early April.
Sports are also heavily affected. On March 8, the much-awaited Osaka Grand Sumo tournament started, but behind doors closed to onlookers, leaving a gaping silence during the matches. On March 11, the extraordinary decision was made to cancel the spring high school baseball tournament, which is a hugely popular event in Japan. Initially the intention was to hold the tournament behind closed doors, but taking into consideration the health of the athletes, ultimately the decision was taken to cancel the event.
Masks have been out of stock for weeks, and many celebrations of the impending cherry blossom season are canceled, with active requests from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to avoid the usual season gatherings.
With the cherry blossom season set to start earlier than usual on March 13 in Tokyo, it looks like Japan will be in for a very unusual spring season.
Author: Arielle Busetto