"They Completely Dropped The Ball": Critics Bash Japan's Government

Japan has become the country that's perhaps most at risk of a major outbreak of COVID-19. It's also the country with arguably the most to lose, in terms of its reputation, if it's forced to call off the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

As we've noted several times over the past few days, from allowing the US to break its quarantine of the 'Diamond Princess' to releasing thousands of passengers and crew as new cases are still being identified, Japan's public health officials seem to have repeatedly dropped the ball in suppressing an outbreak that isn't very forgiving of mistakes.

In  an uncharacteristically brusque statement, the CDC, which is coordinating the US response to the virus, claimed that Japan had "failed" with the 'Diamond Princess' quarantine. And on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that experts around the world feel the same way.

Even though most countries have promised to quarantine passengers and crew from the DP once they return home, Japan is simply letting thousands of potentially infected individuals out into the streets of Tokyo. The UK has advised Britons on board the ship to remain aboard until Friday, when it can organize an evacuation flight.

Given Japan's elderly population, an outbreak of COVID-19 could be particularly deadly. Researchers have said that patients over the age of 80, and those with co-occurring health issues are at the highest risk of death upon infection.

For what it's worth, Japan has taken some positive steps, as Japanese companies have ordered thousands to work from home, a policy the government has supported.

But while some events have been cancelled and some companies have told workers not to come into the office, the rush-hour trains in Tokyo are still packed with workers, and there has been little government discussion of a wider lockdown.

A top economist at Nomura, a Japanese bank, said PM Shinzo Abe's government embarrassed itself by waiting for the WHO to declare a global pandemic before taking the outbreak seriously.

"The Japanese government’s decision to wait for the China-friendly WHO to make its much-delayed declaration of a global health emergency led to the first cases of domestic person-to-person transmission and tarnished the country’s international reputation," Richard Koo, chief economist at Nomura Research Institute, wrote in a report.

Outside of the 'Diamond Princess', Japan has only confirmed 74 cases. But Koo suspects it's already too late for the administration to stave off a severe economic shock.

"The coronavirus will probably cause a substantial amount of economic damage in Japan," Koo wrote. The Abe administration, he says, "managed to completely drop the ball on this issue."

And Roo isn't the only economist who's worried about Japan: A Bloomberg survey released Wednesday showed that the economists see Japan falling into recession as the coronavirus pummels an economy already reeling from a recent unpopular sales tax hike.

Earlier, we shared a rant from Professor Kentaro Iwata of the Faculty of Infectious Diseases at Kobe University, who claimed that the conditions aboard the ship were "completely chaotic."

"The cruise ship was completely inadequate in terms of controlling infections," he said in one of them.

"There was not a single infection control professional on the ship, nor anyone professionally involved in infection prevention. The bureaucrats were in charge of everything."

"There is no clear distinction between the green (healthy) zones and the red (potentially infected) zones. And the staff is running back and forth," Iwata reported.

Researchers tracking the virus haven't been able to ascertain how many of the patients were infected - they seemingly picked up the virus out of thin air. Though one notable exception was a hospital worker who was infected by one of the passengers aboard the 'Diamond Princess.'

Japan isn't the only government that was caught flat-footed by the outbreak. In reality, governments across the region failed to predict that it would have such a huge impact.

"This virus spread very, very fast. Not only China, not only Japan, but also many other countries cannot catch up with the speed of this virus," Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University, told reporters in Tokyo. Oshitani also sits on the government panel tackling the virus. "Even if they implemented a travel ban to all of China, it was too late."

Of course, the outbreak would need to get pretty damn bad for Japan and the Olympic Committee to actually cancel or postpone the games. Japan says all passengers and crew from the DP have been tested, and that anybody released will have tested negative and shown no symptoms of infection. Still, there's a solid chance that many who have only just been infected don't show symptoms for weeks, despite being contagious. Right now, it seems like Japan is planning to release hundreds of potentially infected people into the streets without a backup plan in case things go awry, or the worst case - that dozens of people contracted the virus in the closing days of the quarantine, and slipped through the inspection - becomes a reality.