As several countries across the world are mulling to lift coronavirus lockdown, Japan's Hokkaido gives an important lesson about 'how not to deal with the pandemic'. Hokkaido, the first area of the country to see a major coronavirus outbreak, was hit by a second wave of coronavirus just weeks after it lifted the lockdown 'too early'. Hokkaido's journey from successfully containing the virus to being slammed by the second wave of infection is a warning to the rest of the world.
After a sharp acceleration in infections, the prefecture of 5.3 million people went into lockdown in late February. Widely lauded for its quick response and three-week-long lockdown, Hokkaido was slammed by the second wave of infection after its governor Naomichi Suzuki lifted the restrictions. Considering the resurgence of cases, the region was forced back into lockdown again after about 26 days.
The prefecture took quick action in response to the outbreak of coronavirus as the governor declared a state of emergency on February 26 with 66 confirmed infections, the highest of any prefecture in Japan. Schools, restaurants and other public places were closed, even though they were not legally compelled to shut, as per reports. Dr Kiyoshi Nagase, chairman of the Hokkaido Medical Association, reportedly praised the government’s fast response and said it could be a model for the country. Unfortunately, the prefecture has now become a case study for the impact of the disease if a lockdown is relaxed too soon.
By mid-March, the crisis began to stabilize in Hokkaido and the prefecture reported cases in single digits and even zero cases on some days. Assuming that the situation was under control, the governor reportedly gave in to the pressure of local businesses and lifted the lockdown. People came out on the streets and gathered at public places to celebrate the 'victory over pandemic.'
Soon after the lockdown was ended on March 19, the island reported 135 new infections in the space of a week. The island reportedly had 279 cases on April 14, an increase of about 80% from when the governor lifted the first lockdown less than a month before. As of May 7, the prefecture has 879 confirmed cases while 45 people have succumbed to the pandemic.
“We are facing a crisis of a second wave in the spread of (the coronavirus) infections,” Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki told reporters, asking residents to refrain from making nonessential outings.
Meanwhile, with 15,477 confirmed cases and 577 deaths, Japan extended the nation-wide lockdown till May 31 and issued new social behaviour guidelines for the residents. Speaking at a news conference on May 4, the expert panel said that though the number of newly infected cases was on the decline, emergency measures would remain in place. They added that a surge in cases could overwhelm the hospitals and medical staff, therefore, these emergency measures were expected to become a norm in the Japanese culture.
Many experts reportedly believe that Hokkaido's second wave could have been avoided if the lockdown remained in place for a while longer. Other countries considering lifting their lockdown could learn from Hokkaido's experience and ensure that everything is in place in case of a relapse. The island’s story serves as a wake-up call for leaders of other nations, including the US and UK, as they consider loosening restrictions.
While the United States President Donald Trump had been emphasizing the need to 'open America again', the UK PM Borish Johnson told the Parliament that the government will likely begin easing the coronavirus lockdown restrictions from May 11. The US and UK are among the worst-hit countries in the world with a record number of cases and deaths. The US has so far reported 1.26 million infections and 74,581 deaths. On the other hand, UK has recorded 201,000 confirmed cases and 30,076 deaths, overtaking Italy as the worst-affected country in Europe.