Big news – or deliberate distraction? An extra edition of a newspaper is distributed in Tokyo on Thursday, the day Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested that schools close from March 2nd. The shock announcement crowded out discussion of whether the government was deliberately under-counting patients infected with the coronavirus in order to protect the schedule for the 2020 Olympics. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

The coronavirus has brought spring break early to Japanese schools but hardly anyone over 18 is happy about it. Some experts are even skeptical about its efficacy: The need may be more political than epidemiological.

The shutdown has largely diverted attention from a controversy that had taken on viral proportions: Has Japan’s government, desperate to carry on with hosting the Olympics, deliberately kept the numbers of infected down by discouraging testing?

It’s a question that was on the front page of at least one popular evening tabloid, Nikkan Gendai, on Thursday afternoon, the day the prime minister issued his schools shut-down guidance. The headline read: “Coverup of potentially 5000 people with coronavirus?”

Since last Saturday, news outlets starting with TBS Broadcasting have put out reports of people in Japan seeking to be tested for the coronavirus who were turned away at clinics and hospitals – ostensibly because they didn’t meet the stringent requirements for getting tested. Some were also told that there wasn’t the capacity to test them.

The Association of Doctors in Tokyo (Tokyotoishikai) protested the insufficient testing vocally at a press conference Thursday, an unusual step for an organization that is normally considered subservient to the political party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The chairman of the organization said there were numerous cases of doctors deciding that patients needed to be tested for the virus only to have public health care centers, which are authorized to do the tests, refuse to perform the analysis. When doctors would ask the reasons for refusal, most were told, “We are giving priority to seriously ill patients.”

Prior to the association press conference, on Wednesday the 26th, opposition party lawmakers grilled Katsunobu Kato, the minister of health, labor and welfare, on the surprisingly low number of tests being conducted for the virus in Japan.

Kato stated that, between the 18th and 24th, Japan had only tested 6,300 people. During the same period, according to South Korea’s Ministry Of Health and Welfare, there were over 24,000 Koreans tested.

While the number of patients tested in Korea grew every day, the figures show the numbers of tests given in Japan mysteriously going down from the peak of 1594 on the 21st to 541 on the 24th.

 The opposition parties asked Minister Kato if the government was deliberately suppressing the testing, in an effort to save face or ensure the Olympics were not cancelled.

Dates of Coronavirus TestsJapan Korea
Total 630024038
Japan numbers are from testimony read in the parliament by the minister of health, labor and welfare. Korea numbers are from the Ministry of Health and Welfare in Korea.

He denied it, but it seems clear that while Japan has the capacity to test more people it hasn’t been doing that.

In one of the health ministry’s most baffling decisions so far, it has shown a steadfast resolve not to test non-passengers working for the Japanese government who had boarded the coronavirus ridden Diamond Princess cruise ship or otherwise worked on the quarantine operations.

The ministry had initially refused to test the ninety health-care workers, contractors, and doctors working with, near or aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The cruise ship was quarantined in the port of Yokohama from February 3rd and 709 people became infected.

Only after broadcaster TBS reported last Saturday (February 22) on the surprising decision not to test people who might have exposed to the virus via the ship did the Ministry reverse course. Initially, when confronted by the press, Minister Kato refused to say what would be done.

The negative publicity forced the health ministry to announce it would test 41 of the 90 workers but then it refused to test any of the doctors or medical staff who had been on board. A driver involved in the quarantine tested positive for the disease on Thursday, and the ministry is now rethinking its position.

An employee in the same ministry told Asia Times, on condition of anonymity, “The Ministry top dogs asserted that anyone with medical knowledge, like a doctor or public health care worker, should know enough not to get the virus and they were fine. No need to be tested. Well, clearly it was needed.”

The employee stated, “Epidemiologically speaking, it makes complete sense to test people who have been in direct contact with the infected. However, if you test them, it’s very likely that the stats for the infected will rise.”

As of Friday, the Japanese government has admitted that at least ten people involved in the quarantine, including doctors and a high-ranking ministry official, have become infected. At the same time, over 40 of the passengers who were prematurely evacuated from the Princess Diamond Cruise ship now appear to have developed the virus.

They were all sent home via public transport, making the possibility that they infected others on their route home an issue that hasn’t been addressed.

As a matter of note, Japan is not the only country that’s under-testing. The United States has the same problem. Scientific American noted in an online article that the US had only tested 445 people as of Wednesday due to “a perfect storm of problems in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s development of test kits—and the agency’s reluctance to expand its recommendation of who should be tested given the limited availability of kits.”

The Health Ministry announced that it was considering purchasing expensive machines that would speed up the number of tests conducted and reduce the time for results from six hours to one hour. It said no final decision had been made.

Discussion of these issues seems to have closed along with the school doors in the seemingly spur-of-the-moment announcement by the prime minister on Thursday evening that, in order to stop the spread of coronavirus, he was asking for all elementary, middle and high schools nationwide to be temporarily shut down.

The schools shutdown, which is not mandatory but only “requested,” will begin on Monday (March 2) and is supposed to continue until the end of spring break. It will disrupt the lives of millions in Japan, who will need to look after their children and still go to work.

As for the Olympics, the games are still on according to the president of the International Olympic Committee. The IOC “is fully committed to a successful Olympic Games in Tokyo starting July 24,” Thomas Bach told Japanese media in a conference call late Thursday, according to Kyodo News.