Kyushu University students in Fukuoka City wear face masks, keep social distance and check their body temperatures amid persistent pandemic fears. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

SEOUL – Japan is poised to extend its state of emergency, formerly virus-free Taiwan is faced with record new infections and South Korea is just about holding its own as Covid-19 renews its rampage across the region.

It is a grim reminder that the three East Asian democracies, which all won varying degrees of kudos for their virus containment measure strategies last year, are not out of the woods yet. All three are lagging behind the norm for developing nations in terms of vaccination programs.

While the situation in the three countries is nowhere near as dire as in carnage-wracked India, matters are increasingly worrying for Japan – and the world – as it prepares to host the Olympics despite the ongoing failure of pandemic containment efforts.

Japanese jitters

With the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony set for July 23, the government was expected to announce further containment measures late on Friday, according to Kyodo News Agency. The unexpected move was expected to extend “states of emergency” from six to nine prefectures nationwide.

The capital Tokyo and Japan’s second city, Osaka, are already in states of emergency. The new restrictions will be applied from Sunday to May 31. “There were discussions on the need to thoroughly implement strong measures,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobo Koto.

Under the measures, restaurants cannot open past 8pm and cannot serve alcohol, department stores and major commercial facilities are “requested” to temporarily shut down or to close early and sports stadiums are only allowed to operate at 50% capacity.

The latest states of emergency are the third set to be applied. This week, daily new infections in Japan have registered at more than 6,000 for three straight days.

Japan, population 126 million, has so far suffered 11,249 deaths from Covid-19. That falls far behind the hideous body counts in the United Kingdom (128,000), the United States (584,000), Brazil (430,000), India (258,000) and the United Kingdom (128,000). However, it is also far ahead of its two regional neighbors.

Though the national health system continues to hold out, there are reports from some regions of patients dying at home due to a lack of hospital bed space, while highly contagious mutations of the virus stalk the land.

Meanwhile, Japan’s vaccination program is the slowest in the OECD. Only one vaccine, produced by Pfizer, has so far been approved for use by the country’s notoriously bureaucratic officialdom.

As a result, according to a global comparison of the numbers of citizens vaccinated per 100 people as collated by database Statista, Japan has managed to vaccinate only 3.51%.

Most seats were empty at an Olympic test event. Photo: AFP

Against the backdrop of these failures of leadership, a planned visit by International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach, set for this week, has been put back to June. Public opinion polls show minimal support for the Games – and major figures are starting to speak out.

This week Naomi Osaka, a national tennis star, and Masayoshi Son, the high profile CEO of SoftBank, as well as the country’s most prominent blue-chip and Olympic sponsor Toyota, have all publicly questioned the wisdom of holding the Games this summer.

The Japanese media has been increasingly scathing about the ineffectiveness of the state’s response and has been seeking to analyze what has gone wrong.

The Nikkei Asian Review, while acknowledging the excellence of the public healthcare system, pointed to what it considers to be two national problems in governance: Poor crisis-management ability and a silo mentality among bureaucracies and government agencies.

These leadership problems, the Nikkei suggested, are further buttressed by a national tendency toward blind optimism among the public.

All quiet on the Korean front

To Japan’s west, calm prevails in South Korea.

After pioneering a highly effective containment strategy last year, the country was late to acquire vaccines, leading to a program that is far ahead of Japan’s, but still far slower than most developed countries.

Yet South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has suffered only 1,893 deaths from the virus.

In Seoul, social distancing restrictions include the closure of bars and restaurants at 10pm and social gatherings limited to four people. Even on days when infection numbers rise, the government, apparently loathe to implement additional measures on a Covid-weary population and a recovering economy, is keeping a firm hand on the helm and charting its course.

Citizens relax near central Seoul’s Cheongyecheon Stream. Despite a slow vaccination drive, South Koreans continue to live relatively normal lives. Photo: AFP

At ground zero, amid bright spring sunshine, there is little sense of crisis. Public transport, restaurants and gyms are full. Covid-related headlines in leading media are hardly apocalyptic, being largely reduced to the daily count of new infections – now hovering in the 600-700 range.

And while there is public criticism of the slow pace of vaccinations, according to Statista, South Korea’s rate is above Japan’s at 8.16% per 100 people.

Taiwan in shock

Matters are vastly different for all metrics in Taiwan. Taipei was arguably the most effective government in Asia – if not the world – in defeating the virus. The self-governing island, with a population of 24 million, has suffered only 12 deaths from the virus.

But fear struck this week as cases started to rise, with a daily record of 29 new infections in the country on Friday. While such a figure would be cause for celebration virtually anywhere else, in Taiwan it is a cause for alarm.

The leadership has put on its game face. Premier Su Tseng-chang said on Friday that there was no need to raise the island’s Covid alert, according to media in Taipei.

That quashed suggestions by the health minister earlier this week that the alert level would be raised. As that step would have meant the closure of non-essential businesses, the stock market plunged but has since steadied.

While Taipei pioneered a deft contact-tracing system of conglomerating governmental databases – a step that was successfully followed by Seoul – it could be very vulnerable if infections continue to rise.

The country’s vaccination rate is at the bottom of virtually all global charts. According to Statista, its rate of vaccinations per 100 people is a mere 0.39%.

Taiwan saw a record number of Covid-19 cases on Friday – a shock for an island that has fortified itself so effectively against the virus so far. Photo: AFP/Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto