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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires on Friday. | AFP-JIJI - Image Credit: japantimes.co.jp
May 24, 2020

Japan’s PM Abe’s Balancing Act As He Walks the Line Between Economics and Health

It seems like a lifetime ago since people were able to go out and live their daily lives without any restrictions on their movements. We’re only in the second quarter of 2020, but the lives of people the world over have been turned upside down, with the “new normal” being the buzzword of the year.

When the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 as most everyone calls it now, initially broke out in Wuhan, China, the attention the press gave it was a fleeting glance. Today, every eye on every continent is on COVID-19, how it is developing, how it is affecting every person, and how governments and their leaders have dealt with the situation.

Now officially a pandemic, COVID-19 has tested the human race’s mettle – from those at the top to those at the very bottom. No country, no race, no gender, and no age has been spared.

Many politicians and world leaders are under the microscope. How did they deal with the initial breakout in their respective jurisdictions? How is keeping up with the developments? What are they doing to ensure the safety of their citizens while ensuring that the economy keeps turning?

It is the fine line that every government has to walk. An outstanding line. And, with it comes the need for the skill, empathy, and intuition to balance the needs of the country as a whole and citizens as individuals.

When it comes to walking this delicate line, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his government may be good role models. While the Japanese people are not unanimous in giving praise to their leaders, Prime Minister Abe has been the target of many critics regarding how he has handled the COVID-19 crisis so far. There are many factors to consider. And when it is all said and done, one can say that the PM and his team have been doing one heck of a balancing act.

From the start, PM Abe was on the receiving end of flak due to the handling of the Diamond Princess situation. The cruise ship, which carries the flag of another country, docked in Japan and was put under quarantine. While experts say that such quarantine isn’t the most effective way to contain a pandemic, the Japanese government didn’t have a lot of options available at that time. The Diamond Princess, which only left Japan a few days ago, is British-flagged and American-run. Japan was not obligated to provide a solution, but they still did – which was the only decent thing to do. And while the quarantine execution may not have been perfect, the government did lend their assistance to the best of their capabilities. One must consider that this was in the early stages of the pandemic and that it was the first case of a cruise ship carrying virus-infected individuals. There was no precedent at all.

As weeks passed and the virus spread like wildfire from country to country, with infection rates skyrocketing, Japan managed to keep its infection rates down – and impressively, mortality rates as well.

They took measures that are now considered normal – such as shutting down schools, offices, and local businesses in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus. It was – is – necessary to ensure the health and safety of citizens. By keeping people inside their own homes, infection rates are kept low.

However, weeks into the lockdown, it is evident that extreme restrictions are not sustainable. Work from home has allowed some companies to continue operating, but in the long run, small businesses, especially, will die. The economy as a whole will take an unwanted plunge.

Such is the challenge every country’s leader faces – balance the scale with health on the one end and the economy on the other.

PM Abe declared a National Emergency in March, which continued through April. This declaration limited people’s movements while allowing some businesses to continue operating with certain restrictions. On the one hand, there was an attempt to contain the virus’s spread by implementing social distancing and limited operating hours. On the other hand, business owners had the opportunity to continue making revenue.

The government also introduced what has been touted as Japan’s “biggest-ever stimulus package,” which involves a whopping 108 trillion yen. This amount, equalling about 20 percent of the country’s economic output, is being distributed to households and businesses. Lower-income households, especially those who have lost jobs because of the virus, are the priority together with those who have children. The stimulus package is a huge statement from PM Abe to his people.

Furthermore, the Japanese government is already making plans for after the virus has been contained with all of this. They have plans, albeit still lacking details, to provide subsidies for local economies, empower consumers to increase spending, and even tourism. Consider that the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for this summer have been moved to 2021. Again, to show how serious it is taking the virus, the government is already set aside resources for the potential anti-flu drug for 2 million people.

It is indeed challenging to balance the need to ensure everyone’s safety and yet keep the economy alive. Yet we have to give credit where credit is due. PM Abe and his government are doing a decent job of walking the tightrope and providing feasible solutions for the country.

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