Japan is set this week to revise a law allowing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a formal state of emergency over the coronavirus, if needed, as Abe faces persistent criticism for his handling of the outbreak ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
In perhaps his biggest test since returning to office in 2012, Japan’s longest-serving premier has come under fire for what critics have called an initial lack of leadership, followed by abrupt steps like school closures that left parents and employers scrambling.
Japan more than 1,000 cases of the virus including about 700 from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo last month. Fourteen people have died, including seven from the liner. The virus has spread rapidly around the world, with more than 100,000 confirmed cases and 3,600 deaths.
Among criticisms is that Abe’s government was too slow to put curbs on visitors from China - a key source of economic growth - after the outbreak originated there late last year. In a recent opinion poll, 50% said they didn’t approve of Abe’s handling of the outbreak, versus 37% who said they did.
Commentators have also said Japan has lacked sufficient capacity to test for the virus, while failing to mobilize what capacity it has, leading to suspicions that the virus is spreading faster than data show. Vigorous testing programs in countries like South Korea have detected high numbers of infections.
Speculation - denied by organizers - is swirling that the global outbreak will scupper Japan’s dream of hosting the Tokyo Olympics, an outcome that could become more likely if a state of emergency is declared.
“I want the Olympics to succeed more than anyone, but the negative factors are increasing,” Yoichi Masuzoe, a former Tokyo governor who was health minister during a 2009 influenza epidemic, told Reuters.
In its latest move, the government plans on Tuesday to submit to parliament a bill to revise a 2012 law, enacted after the 2009 epidemic, so it can be applied to the coronavirus if necessary. Parliament is expected to sign off on Friday.
The 2012 law was enacted while Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was in opposition. Officials have said it could not be applied to the coronavirus without changes, although opposition parties and other critics say reinterpreting it is enough.