TOKYO — After days of record coronavirus counts and a rapidly rising death toll, Japan declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures on Thursday, the country’s first such declaration since April.
The announcement by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga came five days after governors from the affected prefectures had pleaded with the central government to act, and after his own coronavirus expert panel had recommended the emergency declaration, citing explosive growth in infections in the vast capital region.
Deaths from the virus in Japan have doubled in less than two months, passing 3,700, and Tokyo’s governor has warned that the medical system is under stress. Mr. Suga had hesitated to invoke the emergency measure, hoping to preserve economic activity, but eventually bowed to the pressure from the Tokyo-area officials, as polls show widespread dissatisfaction with his four-month-old administration and its handling of the pandemic.
Mr. Suga’s foot-dragging illustrated the difficult choices many world leaders face nearly a year into a pandemic that is now entering a grueling new phase, with widespread vaccinations still months away. They are under pressure to bring down rising caseloads despite public fatigue over virus restrictions, while also breathing life back into their economies.
Health experts warned that the emergency declaration, which will last one month, still might not be enough to turn the tide.
The declaration carries little legal heft and relies mostly on voluntary compliance. The government is asking restaurants in Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama Prefectures to close by 8 p.m., employers to encourage staff members to work from home, and residents to refrain from going out for all but the most essential tasks, also after 8 p.m. Schools, museums, cinemas, gyms and shops will remain open.
The governor of Osaka, the country’s third-largest prefecture, said on Thursday that he planned to ask the central government to add it to the area covered by the emergency declaration.
In comments to reporters after the government’s expert panel recommended the move on Tuesday, Shigeru Omi, the head of the panel, said that declaring a state of emergency would not guarantee a slackening in the rate of infection.
“It’s not possible to control in a couple of weeks, or less than a month,” Mr. Omi said. “Stronger measures might be needed.”
Japan has reported a total of 258,393 cases, far fewer than many Western countries. After it emerged in May from its previous, brief state of emergency, it held up what it called the “Japan model”: an intense focus on contact tracing and cluster-busting, widespread mask wearing, and as few restrictions on the economy as possible.
But as Japan has experienced several record-setting days for new infections since late last month — Tokyo reported over 2,000 cases on Thursday, and the country a record 5,953 — its coronavirus-fighting model has come under strain….
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