Japan has the lowest proportion of its citizens inoculated against the coronavirus of all the G-7 nations and is a long way behind many developing nations. The country has delivered the vaccine to less than 2% of its people.
Several reasons have been put forward for the slow rate of delivery — including delays in shipments arriving, distribution problems, a lack of people with the qualifications to administer the jabs — but an increasing number of people say the authorities are making excuses.
“It’s appalling,” said Hiromi Iuchi, a 52-year-old office worker in Tokyo. “I read the news about how the rollout of the vaccine is going in other countries and I am really shocked,” she told DW.
“Japan is an advanced, wealthy country with excellent health care services – so why is this taking so long?” she asked. “To me, the government acted too slowly at the very beginning, and the system for approving new medicines here takes too long. We could have done what other countries did, but we hesitated.”
On Monday, Japan introduced its third state of emergency for Tokyo, the three surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, as well as the cities of Osaka and Kyoto.
There were 3,283 new cases reported across the country on Monday, up from 2,274 a week earlier and continuing the upward momentum.
Even more worrying is the rapid spread of various mutations of the virus , with more than 60% of the cases in both Tokyo and Osaka relate to the UK variant. Authorities report at least 26 cases of a version that originated in India .
Health experts have also confirmed that there is a uniquely “Japanese variant” of the virus in circulation, although it has close similarities to the South African strain.
Military called in to help
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ordered the Self-Defense Forces to set up a large facility in central Tokyo that will be able to deliver as many as 10,000 inoculations per day by May 24. Similarly, the government is reaching out to trained dentists to assist in the administering of shots in parts of the country where there are insufficient medical professionals.
For a lot of people, these measures are too little, too late – and they are showing their displeasure at the government.
Over the weekend, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost three by-elections, including one seat in the city of Hiroshima that was previously one of the safest in the country. Speaking in the aftermath, Prime Minister Suga said he took the results “to heart” and vowed to “do whatever needs to be done.”
Emi Izawa is only 18 and not old enough to vote, but she insists that she would not back the LDP in the general election that is scheduled before the end of the year.
“I hear about other countries that were really struggling with the pandemic six months ago, places like the US or parts of Europe, and I felt glad that I was not living in those places,” said Izawa, a university student in Tokyo, who is originally from Tochigi Prefecture, north of the capital.
“But now I see that people are able to go out to restaurants and cinemas again in those places because so many people have had the vaccine, and then I see that not even 2% of people in Japan have had it,” she told DW.
“I heard one politician saying that it will be spring of next year before enough people are vaccinated to reach ‘herd immunity,'” she added. “I really do not understand why they could not do this much faster because everyone I know just wants to get back to leading a normal life again.”
Yet Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, says Japan’s health authorities tend to be cautious in administering new medicines.
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“There have been times when medicines that were approved later turned out to have serious side effects and the government is worried about that happening again,” she told DW, pointing to Japan’s experiences with the morning-sickness drug Thalidomide, which caused severe deformities in unborn children, and the scare over the HPV cervical cancer vaccine.
But, she concedes, more could have been done earlier in the pandemic so that health authorities were not scrabbling around trying to locate dentists, for example, to provide vaccinations in rural parts of the country at the last minute.
“When I look at the UK, they set up PCR test centers in schools, post offices, community centers — and we have to ask why Japan was not able to do that,” she said. “My feeling is that the control and management of the health sector is too rigid, and people with good ideas are not allowed to put them into practice. There is no flexibility that would make things go more quickly or easily.”
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