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How COVID-19 Problematizes Japan’s Disaster Response Planning

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s former prime minister, declared a state of emergency in Japan over the coronavirus on April 7th, shortly after over 300 new cases were recorded that week. The announcement called for voluntary prevention measures and did not forcefully restrain the public from leaving their homes or mandate restrictions on commutes to workplaces and schools. Within two months, on May 25th, the state of emergency was declared over. Despite the extension of the state of emergency and expansion of the announcement to other provinces outside of the hub of the virus, Tokyo, this was the only policy issued by the Japanese government to tackle the global pandemic. Moreover, a second wave of cases which peaked at 1,605 cases on August 7th – more than five-fold the number of cases when the state of emergency was declared – did not precipitate any additional shutdowns or announcements to contain the virus.

Japan is exceptionally well-equipped in the prevention and mitigation of natural disasters. The country has accumulated an array of useful knowledge to prepare for future disasters, painfully learning from past devastating natural disasters such as the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. This is reflected in the implementation of sturdy and advanced public infrastructure to resist disaster impacts, such as replacing fire-prone, wood, and brick buildings with six-story towers of concrete and steel and a planned subway system. System deployment of sophisticated earthquake early-warning systems and the construction of tsunami walls and floodgates are other procedures that prevent the vulnerable country from complete destruction. In addition, Japan has adapted well to climate change-related disasters. The government publicizes the scale and degree of each disaster, such as heavy rainfall and typhoons, to encourage swift evacuation and broadcasts evacuation alerts on national networks.

However, as much as Japan is argued to be the world leader in disaster readiness, the consequences that Japan experienced in its economy and society due to COVID-19 were tremendous. The damage highlights the faults in its disaster response decision-making process, leading many to question whether current government strategies are adequate with the ever-changing and escalating forms of disasters.

Critics claim that the Japanese government’s response to COVID-19 lacked urgency, which led to a slow response to rising cases. Take the strategies and tracking systems of South Korea as an example of a more rapid response. South Korea utilized smartphone technology to track the physical conditions and locations of people traveling into the country. Mandating a tracking application that all travelers downloaded, officials tracked the physical conditions and locations of suspicious conditions using the GPS system in their phones. Within its laws and infectious disease control policy, they publicized the information on the Internet for transparency about transmission routes. Compared to South Korea’s advanced and effective methods of tracking the virus, Japan took a more manual method by physically phone calling to confirm cases and transmission routes. This less speedy method resulted in a later wave of COVID-19 cases in Japan and an overall higher caseload during its first peak compared to South Korea.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Furthermore, government officials regret their heavy reliance on recommendations made by specialists. In early January, government officials came together to decide whether to take immediate action against the virus. To take effective actions, officials consulted specialists closely, who presumably knew the characteristics of the virus better than the cabinet. However, officials fully trusted their claims that it was too early to make decisions and there was no need to take immediate action. With that, any decision-making was postponed until more was known about the virus. This was mid-January.

Since then, eight months have passed, but despite a switch in the country’s leader, due to the sudden resignation of former Prime Minister Abe, there is still no sign of any outstanding government policy in action. Coronavirus cases are still steadily growing by the day, yet what seems to be the only change is the fewer notification from LINE news on coronavirus updates. Prime Minister Suga’s policies, which is heavily focused on reducing cluster cases by continuing increased testing in populated areas and securing hospital capacity for coronavirus treatment with the upcoming flu season, are not ideas that are unheard of. In fact, what is new is the renewed travel restriction, lifting border restrictions for travelers arriving from relatively safer countries, which clearly shows the government’s prioritization of economic growth over public health. Contrasting these policies with the current rising cases, the government’s reaction towards the pandemic would not have changed regardless of who was the leader.

No one could have predicted the full-blown impacts of COVID-19 in the first place. However, when the decision-making process made by Japanese officials are carefully examined, it is clear that there were instances that could have been approached differently to mitigate the consequences that the economy and society experienced.

What are the different approaches that officials could have taken? How could specialists and scientists have made a better prediction of the outcomes of this virus? Accurate data and shared global resources could have suggested efficient ways to navigate around COVID-19. Data is essential for any risk assessment, mitigating the impacts of disasters, and implementing effective policies.

One of the major challenges in the field of disaster data and research is to overcome the limitations induced by a lack of clear definitions across global databases. Major global disaster databases include Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), NatCatSERVICE by the Munich Reinsurance Company (Munich Re), and the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk program (IRDR) by the International Council for Science (ICSU). They are often used as resources for risk assessment internationally. However, despite the comprehensiveness and extensive categorization within each database, there has been continuous debate about the inconsistency of terminology and categorization between these databases that has been ongoing for decades.

For example, terminologies such as disasters and hazards are used interchangeably and classified differently in each database. EM-DAT and IRDR use the same categorizations to classify disasters and hazards respectively. Moreover, the categorization of hazards can vary from 4 classes in the NatCatSERVICE database to 6 families in IRDR. Consistent classifications within databases can facilitate effective application of prevention mechanisms, rehabilitation, and the prediction of the effects of disasters. Not only will inconsistency fail to deliver these advantages in disasters, but further establish an unreliable relationship between science and public attention.

Understanding the mechanisms of natural disasters through updated data is especially important for countries that are more frequently challenged by social, economic, and environmental aftereffects. Japan is one of these countries and has proved its understanding through its relatively strong infrastructure built up in response to past disasters. However, the COVID-19 crisis proves that Japan is still lacking in its response to the virus. The government’s use of analog methods to track transmission routes, announcement of a simple voluntary protocol, and reliance on inaccurate and invalid information from scientists exemplifies an outdated disaster data management. The global pandemic has emphasized the importance of updating and adapting databases to the ever-changing forms of natural disasters. Japan especially, as a country in constant threat of destruction, must update its protocols to allow for better risk assessment of the ever-growing threat of natural disasters to maintain its position as a world leader in disaster preparedness.