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Is Japan’s pandemic response a disaster or a success?

Japan has gone its own way on the coronavirus pandemic from its beginning, with a delayed response, limited testing and a gentler lockdown. But with cases of COVID-19 nearing 20,000 in the country, public health experts are asking whether Japan’s handling of the crisis should be applauded or criticized. Special correspondent Grace Lee reports from Tokyo.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A delayed response, limited testing, and a soft lockdown. Japan has been going against the grain every step of the way in its battle against COVID-19.

    But with coronavirus cases nearing 20,000, public health experts are asking whether Japan's response and outcome should be called a disaster or a success.

    Special correspondent Grace Lee reports from Tokyo.

  • Takayuki Ohishi (through translator):

    Those are PPE.

  • Grace Lee:

    At this hospital just south of Tokyo, a rare site in the era of COVID-19, a mountain of personal protective equipment.

    Here, the first wave of the virus has already come and gone. Staff are now preparing for what's expected next, the second wave of infections. Dr. Takayuki Ohishi is deputy director of the facility's infection control team.

  • Takayuki Ohishi (through translator):

    My impression is that Japan just happened to be lucky. We were in a position where masks were readily available and able to fight the infection that way.

  • Grace Lee:

    Masks may be the answer to Japan's low death rate, at least according to the government's expert panel on COVID-19, but there are questions as to whether the country took the right steps to battle the virus.

    There's been no lockdown here, due to Japan's strict constitution, only a polite request from the government: Stay indoors if possible, and close up shop if you're not essential.

    That has been the essence of Japan's nationwide state of emergency. It was put in place mid-April. But even that was lifted late last month.

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe:

  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (through translator):

    When we declared the state of emergency in Japan, we were not allowed to penalize and force people not to go out. But, even so, we were able to conduct the state of emergency in Japan's own way. And we were able to control the spread in just a month-and-a-half.

  • Grace Lee:

    Experts aren't sure that Japan has controlled the spread, especially because of the country's low test rate. Japan has tested 0.2 percent of its population, one of the lowest rates among developed countries. There's worry here that the virus may be spreading silently.

    Japan's rigid infectious disease law dictates that even mild cases must be hospitalized. And that takes valuable bed space away from critical cases. So, authorities here have been reluctant to test people who aren't in critical condition. Instead, they have opted for a different method, track and trace clusters.

    It's a strategy that experts say worked in the beginning, but has proven difficult in the long term.

  • Masa Numata:

    Sometimes, it's just flooded.

  • Grace Lee:

    Dr. Masa Numata runs a local clinic in Tokyo. He's been handling a large number of patients with COVID-19 symptoms. And to protect other patients, he's been opening his clinic on his usual days off strictly for those exhibiting symptoms.

    He's recommended a handful of them get tested, but none of them has been able to. This is why:

  • Masa Numata:

    If you get sick, then you have to give a call to certain call center. And then the call center will just contact to distinct outpatient facilities.

    And then they finally contact public to health center of local government. But then local government will contact to another institution for the actual testing.

  • Grace Lee:

    A growing chorus of physicians say, Japan's convoluted testing system is putting lives at risk.

  • Masa Numata:

    That's not right, because some people get serious. And I think only medical doctors can make decision, and not bureaucrats.

  • Grace Lee:

    This COVID-19 survivor went through the system firsthand.

  • Drew:

    It felt like humans were being sort of set aside and not cared about.

  • Grace Lee:

    Drew is a long time Japan resident who lives on the northern island of Hokkaido. He's asked to stay anonymous due to the stigma surrounding the virus in Japan.

    After exhibiting symptoms for more than two weeks, his doctor recommended he call the hot line and get tested immediately. But he wasn't able to for more than a month.

  • Drew:

    And they just ran me around in circles, back and forth and back and forth. Finally, at the end of like my fourth or fifth call with them, I just said to her, like, listen, the doctor is saying that I should have a test.

    You have no medical experience or background or certifications or anything whatsoever. You're just like a trained hot line answer — call answering person reading a script. So, like, how can you override the instructions of my doctor?

  • Grace Lee:

    For Prime Minister Abe's administration, COVID-19 has been a P.R. disaster.

  • Michiko Ueda:

    It seems to us, for a lot of Japanese people, just Abe government is — just decide on the spot based on nothing. That was the major problem. I think that people see that, and they just keep changing the policies all the time, and that they don't have any firm ground what this country should do and then where we should go.

  • Grace Lee:

    A recent poll showed that 55 percent of the public is not happy with how Abe handled the outbreak. Most of them felt he was too late in declaring the state of emergency.

  • Michiko Ueda:

    The real problem is that they don't have good statistics in terms of the number of cases of COVID-19, because we are so behind in testing.

  • Grace Lee:

    International criticism began in late February, with the government's response to the Diamond Princess. More than 700 people were infected on board the quarantined ship. Criticism toward the Japanese government intensified later over another hot-button issue in the global spotlight, the Olympics.

    Abe was accused of downplaying the severity of the pandemic in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep the Games on for this summer.

    Now, as restrictions are relaxed across the board, residents here are left feeling uneasy. Many don't trust the official figures.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I'm afraid we might see a second or third wave of infections. I have children, and they're currently not going to classes. But if they have to start going on the subway to commute, I'm worried they might catch the virus there.

  • Grace Lee:

    Doctors say Japan isn't quite out of the woods yet, and are urging the government to ramp up testing.

    Medical staff are hoping, if there is a next wave of COVID-19, it won't overwhelm the system.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Grace Lee in Tokyo.

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