Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.04.14

On the eve of possible COVID-19 overshoot in Tokyo

the japan times on April 7, 2020

Just last month, some U.S. media ridiculed the Japanese people wearing masks. Now the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged all Americans to wear a mask when they leave home, although their president called the measure voluntary and said he would not wear one himself. Good grief, we've told you about this, haven't we?

Last week, Japanese netizens derided their prime minister's decision to distribute two cloth masks to each household throughout the country. They dubbed the two masks as "Abenomask." Although they badly needed masks, the policy was considered as either "too little, too late," out of touch with the reality, or both.

Now that Tokyo's daily infection cases exceed 140 on Sunday, we are on the verge of possible "overshoot." Japan, however, is still inundated with biased and sometimes irrelevant media reports about COVID-19. While there are some credible and dependable pieces of information, many are not. Why we continue to be misled?

There are at least four reasons why we face such biases or contradictions in the news media over the measures to fight against the pandemic. They are: optimism vs. pessimism, those in power vs. those in opposition, medical experts vs. crisis managers and trust vs. hostility toward science. The following is my take:

Optimism vs. pessimism

In case of crises, whether a war or pandemic, political leaders must prepare the nation for the worst and hope for the best. At the beginning of any crisis when dangers are not always physically felt, people tend to be optimistic, simply because they have not started suffering yet. In many cases, optimists are wrong.

There are many instances in history. In his first inaugural address in1933, for example, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment." He knew exactly what leadership and crisis management are all about.

Another great crisis manager was former U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell, who once said "Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age." As he wisely implied, optimism cannot help solve problems. In contrast, the president of the United States doesn't seem to have acted like a wise pessimist.

Those in power versus those in opposition

Why has Trump been so optimistic? Because he's running for re-election. Democrats seem to be more pessimistic about the pandemic, not because they are more reasonable than Republicans but because they want to win the November election.

The U.S. is not unique. Here in Tokyo, like anywhere else including China, people are critical of incumbent politicians and their decisions on what measures to take. No wonder opposition party members in the Diet are also trying to politically damage the reputation of the Abe administration.

In a fight against pandemic, sheer curiosity or politicization does not help, either. They often waste precious time and resources, and delay critical decision-making. In Tokyo, there have been too many of those. Non-expert celebrities and popular comedians are making irrelevant comments on TV day and night.

Medical experts versus crisis managers

This doesn't mean that the opinions of all infectious disease experts should be heeded. Medical doctors know how to save lives but not necessarily understand how to manage a large-scale crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors are good at curing patients but not always good at persuading the nation during crises.

The reasons are not simple. First, in Japan there is a shortage of epidemiologists. Competent experts have already joined the Governmental Advisory Panel of Experts on COVID-19 or are helping local governments. Thus major TV stations have to scramble for the few among them who can appear on TV and make comments.

Second, those who appear on TV are not necessarily skilled communicators. They are neither spokespersons nor representing the policies of the government. In times of crises, their messages must be "clear, convincing and consistent," which is different from medical expertise.

Trust versus hostility toward science

What makes Japan most different is the lack of religious hostility to scientific wisdom. An American pastor, enthusiastically supporting Trump, urged his congregates to show up for worship services in person by saying "Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus?"

New York City's mayor warned last week, "If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services." Something similar happened in South Korea but has not in Japan at least so far.

This does not mean the Japanese behave more scientifically. On the contrary, even last weekend, despite strong recommendations from the national and local governments to stay home, many young Japanese went out. Perhaps each one was hoping that he or she was the only one to do so. But actually they were just among the many who did.

The daily number of infected cases in Tokyo reached 143 on Sunday. Even amateurs like me could predict that it is only a matter of days before Japan experiences an overshooting -- or explosive surge -- of COVID-19 infections. Medical experts strongly urged the Abe administration for days to declare a state of emergency, which the prime minister is now finally about to do.

Despite its potential negative impact on the national economy, any such declaration on the eve of an overshoot is probably too late and may not make any difference. In a crisis, no politicians are immune to merciless criticisms and/or irresponsible reports about what policies they make.

Whatever decision that Abe makes will never be welcomed and will be considered as either "too little, too late," out of touch with the reality, or probably both. Political leaders in crises have been evaluated by the historians and not by the contemporaries. There is no exception to this rule.