Even when the outbreak of Coronavirus in Wuhan is wreaking havoc with the daily lives of millions across the globe, triggering bloodbaths in stock exchanges and financial capitals world over, resetting diplomatic schedules and with efforts to control this menace, two Asian nations – Japan and South Korea – are fighting the battle in their own ways.
In an unprecedented and unexpected new attempt to beat coronavirus in Europe’s worst-affected country, Italy – the entire country – placed itself under quarantine until April 2020, with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte saying the entire nation had to make sacrifices to stop its spread. The number of infected persons continue to rise in Iran, the US, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. Nations across the world are closing public schools and universities or moving classes online, cancelling large gatherings and the public being urged for “social distancing”. As of March 10, there were more than 113,000 virus cases worldwide, and nearly 4,000 deaths. The unofficial figures could be much more.
The combination of coronavirus fears and an oil price war sent financial markets into a tailspin on March 10, with US stocks dropping to their lowest since late 2008, during the financial crisis. That, in turn, has prompted fears of a coronavirus-fueled recession. In India the sensex has already lost over 6,000 points in past three trading days, leading to substantial wealth erosion. It remains unclear at the moment how bad will the outbreak get, what economic havoc will it wreak and what will governments across the globe do about it. In China where the virus started first in Wuhan before it started spreading worldwide, Beijing is claiming credit for beating the coronavirus in a “people’s war,” but many Chinese people are outraged the government did not admit its early mistakes.
Japan had 59 new cases of infection on March 10, the biggest one-day rise since the start of the outbreak, taking the total number to 1,278 cases, including 696 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and 14 returnees on chartered flights from China. As of March 10, Japan saw 19 deaths from the virus, including seven from the cruise ship.
The situation is becoming grimmer by the day. As preventive measures, Japan closed schools, zoos and theme parks, and drastically scaled back public events since the outbreak. The annual spring sumo tournament was held in Osaka without spectators. Japanese government approved draft “state of emergency” measures that would allow authorities to keep people inside and commandeer buildings for hospitals. Unlike neighbouring South Korea, Japan has not undertaken widespread testing and the government came under heavy fire for its handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged an emergency financial package to tackle the outbreak.
If approved by the Diet, the draft Bill would give Abe the power to declare a state of emergency and impose drastic measures, though there are opinions such as that of top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga that stresses that the situation had not yet reached that point. Its spread has cast doubt over whether the Olympics can open as scheduled on Jul 24, although authorities insist planning is continuing as normal. Unlike neighbouring South Korea, Japan has not undertaken widespread testing and the government came under heavy fire for its handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked near Tokyo, with nearly 700 people eventually becoming infected.
The Bill approved by the cabinet is a revision of a 2012 law passed when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was in the Opposition aimed to slow the spread of new strains of flu and was expected to sail through the Diet soon with opposition support. Under the new law, once the prime minister declares a state of emergency in a specific part of the country, local governments can require residents to stay indoors, close schools and limit the use of facilities in which large numbers of people gather. Land and buildings could be requisitioned as makeshift hospitals. With the new legislation, the government can take similar steps against the new coronavirus for up to two years.
For Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister, this is Abe’s biggest test since returning to office in 2012. He has been criticised for an initial lack of leadership and abruptly took steps to close schools leaving parents and employers scrambling. Abe has been criticised for not putting curbs immediately on visitors from China after the outbreak in December 2019. Japan also lacks sufficient capacity to test for the virus, and failed to mobilise what capacity it has, leading to suspicions that the virus is spreading faster than data show. Vigorous testing programmes in countries like South Korea have detected high numbers of infections. If a state of emergency is declared, the dream of hosting the Tokyo Olympics might not be realised. The impact of the virus outbreak is already increasing Japan’s risk of recession.
In the meantime, it transpired that a handful of small music clubs in Japan’s western city of Osaka as a new coronavirus transmission site, even though authorities have focused on stopping large gatherings.
Even when the coronavirus continues to spread, Japan announced that it would quarantine people coming from China and South Korea for two weeks at medical or other facilities to prevent its spread. Further, Chinese and Korean tourists were advised to refrain from visiting Japan and that their visas shall be suspended. South Korea lost no time in lodging a strong protest against Japan’s decision to quarantine South Korean visitors, igniting a fresh diplomatic row between the two Asian nations. Japan was just not the only country; some 100 countries have imposed restrictions on South Korean travellers as the number of infected persons continued to increase. In virus retaliation, Seoul suspended a visa waiver programme for Japanese nationals on March 6 for what it called an “irrational” plan by Tokyo to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, escalating a diplomatic row over their containment measures.
It is rather unfortunate that instead of cooperating jointly to tackle the new global menace, both the Asian nations continue to suffer from the shadow of history. Both Japan and South Korea have close economic ties and are also major US allies, democracies and market economies faced with a rising China and nuclear-armed North Korea. It is clearly the wrong time to invoke the past to address the present.
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