How the “Japan Model” Gave the Coronavirus a Beating

As of June 6, Japan has a total of 17,064 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, 14,972 recovered patients, and 907 deaths. Still 907 deaths too many, but this number translates to a 6 percent mortality rate and 94 percent recovery rate. Comparing this to the 11 percent worldwide mortality rate and 89 percent worldwide recovery rate, Japan is obviously doing something right in its fight against the COVID-19 virus.

What is the reason behind this success? Local and foreign media alike have been raising this question for the past months, along with experts from all over the world. Various theories have sprung up, but in a nutshell, one can conclude that the government’s strategy in containing the virus has a great deal to do with it.

In fact, as the government lifted restrictions towards the end of May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself declared that it is the “Japan Model” that has beaten the COVID-19 virus.

So, what exactly is the “Japan Model” and how has it succeeded in giving the novel coronavirus a beating?

The “Japan Model”

The essence of the “Japan Model” lies in the means of testing individuals for the COVID-19 virus. It follows a cluster-based approach, which was formulated based on the results of a Chinese epidemiological study. This method was first implemented on the cruise ship Diamond Princess.

The strategy revolves around the numerous individuals who did not contract the virus in spite of being closely exposed to infected individuals. Yet, at the same time, there was an exponential increase in the infected. Taking this information into consideration, the hypothesis was that some people who get infected have high transmissibility. These people form a cluster, and from a cluster, there will be other individuals with higher transmissibility. They then form another cluster, which can then give way to more clusters.

The “Japan Model” focuses on these clusters, ultimately tracking down patient zero – or the original source of the infection – for each cluster. Once the tracking is done, the infected individuals and those with high transmissibility are placed in isolation, resulting in halting or slowing down the spread of the virus.

By focusing on clusters and conducting tests on specific groups, testing on a wide scale becomes unnecessary, freeing up resources to actually treat and care for those who are ill.

Another crucial element of cluster-based testing is that it is most effective when conducted in the early stages. So, when cases were first reported in Hokkaido in February, the government quickly implemented the strategy and the virus was quickly contained. In addition to this, the governor declared a state of emergency immediately, encouraging his constituents to change their behavior and follow the now ubiquitous slogan “stay at home”.

Seeing how the cluster-based model was a success in Hokkaido, the Japanese government had no hesitations in applying it to other parts of the country.

Early in April, Tokyo, Osaka, and five other prefectures were put under a state of emergency. Less than two weeks later, this was expanded to include the rest of the country in spite of the economic ramifications.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explains his decision:

“I decided to put all prefectures under the state of emergency to curb infections in respective areas and especially to keep the movement of people to a minimum heading into the Golden Week holidays. To end the emergency situation by May 6, it’s imperative for people to reduce contact with others by at least 70 percent and up to 80 percent.”

While there has been some conspiracy-like talk that the number of tests being done was kept low in order to protect the Tokyo Olympic Games and have it run on schedule, there is really no evidence to support this. One doesn’t have to think very hard to realize that while the number of infected could easily be masked if one wanted to do so, the same cannot be said of the death rate. No matter which way you look at it, the death rate is an accurate way to assess the performance of a country in dealing with the pandemic. It is true that the Japanese government has not done testing on a massive scale as compared to other countries, but the real measure of the success of the “Japan Model” is its coronavirus-related death rate.

Embracing the new lifestyle

When the Prime Minister announced the lifting of the nationwide state of emergency – days ahead of schedule – towards the end of May, the Japanese people started to see the silver lining. The virus is not completely gone, but they are bracing themselves to adapt to the new lifestyle, or what is also being called the new normal.

The new lifestyle is “a uniquely Japanese approach to containing the virus based on request, consensus and social pressure rather than government edicts and legal sanctions”. This involves social distancing (which is already a common practice in the country), making sure there is good ventilation in enclosed areas, making hand sanitizers available, and wearing face masks (again, another common practice). Schools will slowly re-open, as well as some entertainment and leisure venues, albeit with earlier closing hours.

The bottom line – “normal” life is being re-started in the sense that people can now go out, but everyone is asked to modify their behaviors and lifestyle in order to avoid spreading or contracting the virus.

Thanks to the “Japan Model”, the Japanese people are now able to enjoy more freedom than most other countries who are still locking horns with the virus.

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