A woman in a face mask in front of a countdown clock for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Doubts about the event are growing despite a year's delay. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

Tokyo reported 286 news cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, a record for the metropolis and a grim signal that the viral rampage, which only weeks ago looked to have been contained by Japan and most of East Asia, is far from over.

Thursday’s figure broke a previous daily record of 243 cases, set last Friday, according to Kyodo News.  Tokyo’s high-profile governor, Yuriko Koike, said Thursday’s figures reflected the rising numbers of tests conducted of 4,000, also a record high.

Japan’s virus strategy has been to identify clusters and trace related people, rather than encourage mass testing as neighboring South Korea has done.  

Tokyo’s virus clusters in recent days are not related to nightlife, a sector which has been demonized, but are appearing in care centers, nursery schools and shopping districts, according to Kyodo. About 800 theater goers have been tested after an audience member was found to have been infected.

On Thursday, stocks edged lower on virus jitters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 index was down 0.76%, while the broader Topix index dropped 0.66%.

From Wednesday, Tokyo was on its highest level of virus alert, but has not returned to a state of lockdown. A Tokyo resident told Asia Times that people were behaving “as usual” on the streets of the capital.

A seven-week state of emergency across much of the nation, which included loose lockdowns in cities including Tokyo and Osaka, was lifted on May 25. Virus cases have been creeping up since, with Tokyo the epicenter.  

Tourism sector hit

Koike has called for Tokyoites to avoid nightlife, while she and other regional governors are suggesting citizens avoid travel.

That is an issue. The central government is promoting a “Go To” travel campaign scheduled to start on July 22. It offers a range of holiday subsidies to local travelers in a bid to boost a local tourism sector that is facing a cataclysm.

The Tokyo resident, who was in Kyoto over the weekend, told Asia Times that the popular heritage destination was “desolate.”

Japan has swallowed a one-year delay of the much anticipated 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games – costing the country an estimated 40 million visitors – and is suffering an unprecedented drop in incoming travelers. In April, the country suffered a 99.9% drop in visitors to 2,900 – the lowest number of arrivals since 1964, the Japan Times reported.

The damage to the industry is a particularly harsh blow for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has prioritized international tourism as a strategic domestic sector.

But on the virus front, worse could still be ahead.

On Wednesday, Norio Omagari of the Disease Control and Prevention Center said infections nationwide in the last seven days had doubled over the previous week and warned that cases could double again within four weeks, and then hit 20,000 cases per day in the subsequent four weeks.

There has been fear in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere that the virus’ second wave could impact in September or October. Both countries have enacted strict restrictions on incoming travel.

International comparisons

In South Korea on Thursday, 61 cases were reported, following on from Wednesday’s 39 cases, and 33 on Tuesday. The Bank of Korea said Thursday that it would hold its policy rate unchanged at 0.5%, as had been expected.

Yet while the Northeast Asia neighbors’ daily virus cases continue to top their respective domestic media headlines, neither country is a disaster zone by global standards.

As of Thursday, Japan (population 126 million) had 22,508 cases with 984 deaths, while South Korea (population 51 million) had 13,612 cases and 291 deaths.

In Europe, the UK (population 66.6 million) had 291,911 infections and 45,053 deaths, while Germany (population 83 million) had 201,252 cases and 9,148 fatalities.

By contrast, the US (population 328 million) was reeling from 3,617,040 infections and 140,150 deaths. On Wednesday, the State of Florida alone suffered 10,181 new infections and 112 deaths.