Abe declares nationwide state of emergency amid virus spread

16, Apr. 2020

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TOKYO, Kyodo - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded on Thursday the state of emergency beyond seven prefectures to the entire nation in an attempt to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading further and straining the health care system.

As Abe extended the declaration to cover all 47 prefectures in the country of around 126 million people, he also said the government will provide cash handouts of 100,000 yen ($930) to all citizens, approving a rare reworking of a state budget days before its planned submission to parliament.

The nationwide state of emergency will deal a debilitating blow to an economy already on the brink of recession following a consumption tax hike last year. Some governors had asked the central government to include their prefectures amid fears of growing infections.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan's minister in charge of issues related to the emergency declaration, said the inclusion of all prefectures was necessary before the Golden Week holidays start in late April and he had consulted an advisory panel that determined such an expansion was appropriate.

"The cumulative number of cases has topped 100 in Hokkaido, Ibaraki, Ishikawa, Gifu, Aichi and Kyoto (prefectures)," Nishimura told the panel meeting. "It's an urgent task for us to take measures to keep the flow of people to the minimum before the holidays."

Tokyo, Osaka, and five other prefectures were already under a monthlong state of emergency from April 7 to May 6, when this year's Golden Week holidays end.

Alarmed by the prospect of an explosive surge in COVID-19 cases, Abe has called for an up to 80 percent reduction in person-to-person contact. Companies have been asked to promote a further shift to teleworking to reduce commuters by 70 percent.

Data gathered since the state of emergency declaration for the seven prefectures have shown crowds have been reduced but that meeting the reduction targets may be difficult.

The declaration for the seven prefectures, based on a revised law enacted last month, has given their governors the power to take bolder preventive steps and allows them to call for school and business closures, though there are no legal penalties for noncompliance.

Once the prime minister makes a declaration based on a government advisory panel's assessment, each prefectural governor gains the authority to expropriate private land and buildings to provide medical care.

They can also requisition medical supplies and food from companies that refuse to sell them and punish those that hoard or do not comply.

The governors of Kyoto and Aichi had asked the government to declare a state of emergency for their prefectures, a move that would give them the legal backing to take bolder steps against the new coronavirus.

Aichi and six other prefectures had already declared their own emergencies to underscore their heightened sense of crisis. Hokkaido, which became the first prefecture to declare its own state of emergency in February, is struggling to curb infections.

Stay-at-home requests by local authorities and business suspensions are dealing an additional blow to the world's third-largest economy, sparking calls for state compensation for lost revenue.

The government has put together a record 108 trillion yen economic package that includes a scheme to give 300,000 yen to households whose income is deemed to have fallen sharply due to the virus outbreak.

In acquiescing to coalition partner Komeito, Abe has instructed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to consider reworking the extra budget for fiscal 2020, with an eye to dropping the limited cash handout plan.

The global coronavirus crisis has raised calls for economic stimulus, but Japan is cautious about taking on new debt to finance bold spending measures as the country's fiscal health is the worst among developed nations with its debt twice the size of its economy.

Japan now has over 9,000 coronavirus infections confirmed including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship operated by a U.S. company that was quarantined near Tokyo in the early stages of the epidemic in Japan.

Meanwhile, the transport ministry said Thursday that all passengers departing on domestic flights from Tokyo's Haneda airport will be required to have their temperatures checked before boarding as part of measures to curb the spread of the virus.

The measures will apply to all flight routes starting from Friday through May 6, the last day of Japan's state of emergency. (Kyodo)