Surge in virus infections has Japan considering total lockdown

An official prepares to close the street of cherry blossoms at Ueno Park in Tokyo on March 27. (AP pic)

TOKYO: Japan will step up its efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus by banning the entry of foreign citizens travelling from the United States, China, South Korea and most of Europe, the Asahi newspaper reported on Monday.

Non-Japanese citizens who have been in any of these areas in the past two weeks will be barred, the paper said.

Tokyo may also ban travel to and from some countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, it said, citing unidentified government sources.

At present, Japan-only bans entry of citizens from some parts of South Korea, China as well as numerous European nations, with a request for a two-week self-quarantine for those entering from the United States, China and South Korea.

Government officials weren’t immediately available to comment.

While Japanese nationals would not be affected, the travel ban would come as a surge in the number of infections in Japan stokes fears that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may shift from considering to declaring a national state of emergency – a step that could pave the way for a lockdown of its capital Tokyo.

“We’re in a critical stage” on state of emergency deliberations, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Monday.

Any lockdown in Japan would look different to mandatory measures imposed in some parts of Europe and the United States: By law, local authorities are only permitted to issue requests for people to stay home that is not legally binding.

But analysts said such a move would inflict huge damage to an economy already on the cusp of recession due to the widening fallout from the pandemic, which has derailed Tokyo’s plans to stage Olympic Games this summer, disrupted supply chains and cooled consumption via event cancellations and shop shut-downs.

“I think the possibility of a lockdown of the Tokyo metropolitan area is rising,” said Hideo Kumano, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

“It would be like stopping blood flowing through Japan’s economy,” he said, estimating a lockdown of Tokyo for a month could shrink Japan’s economy by about 5.1 trillion yen – nearly 1%.

Prime Minister Abe has pledged to deploy a huge stimulus package with a size exceeding one compiled during the global financial crisis to combat the outbreak, which had infected nearly 1,900 people in Japan, with 56 deaths, as of Sunday afternoon.

Those numbers exclude 712 cases and 10 deaths from a cruise ship that was moored near Tokyo last month, public broadcaster NHK said.

As fears of a Tokyo lockdown grew, 68 new coronavirus cases were reported in the capital for Sunday, a record daily increase.

Bringing the tension home to many was the news that comedian Ken Shimura, a household name in Japan, had become the first national celebrity to die after contracting the virus.

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