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Debate over coronavirus law heats up

TOKYO >> The power of words is being tested in Japan, where efforts to fight the novel coronavirus — bound by a law tailored to a different disease — remain strictly voluntary.

But that may soon change, after a nationwide surge in new infections triggered debate at all levels of government on not only how the law should be changed but when.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said revising the law is necessary to be able to make the changes necessary to manage the virus.

“Words are the only countermeasures we have here,” Koike said of the current situation.

Earlier this month, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revise the law in a way that would give municipal leaders legal authority to order businesses to close should they disobey virus countermeasures.

But a few days later, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister charged with the country’s virus response, said that discussions about revising the law should take place after the virus has subsided.

“The fire is happening now — it’s pointless to take action after the situation has passed, as the fire will have spread by then,” Koike responded.

The nation’s action has been shaped largely by the New Influenza Special Measures Act, which relies on residents and businesses to voluntarily isolate themselves, practice social distancing and temporarily suspend operations. The act was intended as a response to influenza, which is treatable and has a lower rate of spread and death rate than COVID-19.

The Abe administration revised the law to allow for the declaration of a state of emergency in early April for Tokyo and six other prefectures.

The declaration authorized prefectural governors to issue closure requests and ask residents to isolate. The declaration was extended to the rest of the country nine days later then lifted completely in late May, when the outbreak seemed to have subsided.

But the virus reemerged in late June, and new infections have since surged in urban centers, with prefectures throughout the country seeing record- breaking numbers.

Some experts say a more restrictive citywide lockdown, like the ones in northern Italy and New York City, could be possible for Tokyo if the law is revised.

Until such a change, all efforts to contain the virus will rely on residents being willing to comply, and for that commitment to last at least until a treatment, vaccine or other long-term solution is found.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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