A Covid-19 prevention signboard in Osaka Prefecture, Japan on August 18, 2021. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP / Kenichi Unaki

Tokyo will not admit it, but Japan’s Covid crisis is out of control. The government clings to the hope of a badly delayed vaccination program.

But even if the program reaches its 80% goal – it is now less than 40% – the hospital system will, at the present pace of new infections, be completely overwhelmed. 

It is already severely overstretched. How did this seemingly well-organized nation get into this mess?

The first answer is that it is not as well organized as it seems. Henny Penny are old English words and possibly the best way to describe Tokyo’s reaction to the Covid threat. It gives the sense of panicky hens rushing in every direction to cope with a sudden disaster, and not getting anywhere very fast.   

Tokyo did not even begin to seek approval for the AstraZeneca vaccine till February 6, 2021 – two months after the US started vaccine testing. It had spent the time debating whether a vaccine program was needed.

Together with Moderna, it did not grant final approvals till the end of May. That should have been the first hint of disaster impending.

Why the delay? First came the usual nonsense about how medicines tested and approved abroad need to be retested to make sure they were suitable for Japanese bodies.

Then came hints Tokyo had been waiting, unsuccessfully, for domestic firms to discover the antidote. 

Then when Tokyo finally set about a much-belated vaccination program, it made the whole affair look like a major surgical operation. Needles could only be inserted by properly qualified caregivers. 

Vaccinations start at the Tokyo Dome in Bunkyo Ward on August 16, 2021. Pfizer vaccine is used and more than 2,000 people per day are expected to be vaccinated, or about 35,000 in 34 days. Photo: AFP / Ryohei Moriya / The Yomiuri Shimbun

This caution allegedly was because older Japanese were said to be traumatized by past vaccine scandals. But properly qualified caregivers were already busy looking after Covid patients.

So after more consultations, they decided somewhat less than properly qualified caregivers could handle needles. But the program would only be for those over 60.

I managed to fit that category and after a three-day wait, my application to my local district authority was accepted for June 6, already four months after Covid D-day.

But more Henny Penny was to come.

First I had to find a vaccination site – a makeshift military affair set up mid-Tokyo. There were no more regular hospital sites available.

There we waited in queues for our local district documents to be checked and approved. While waiting we were told to read data explaining the amazing vaccination event about to descend upon us.

Next came a check by a qualified doctor, to make sure I had no pre-existing conditions which would rule out eligibility. 

Only then was I admitted to a large room with a row of plastic booths, each with two staffers – one of those semi-approved caregivers qualified to push a needle into my arm and the other, a nurse, to make sure I had no bad after-effects.

A doctor waited outside to supervise the goings-on and pick up if there were any after-effects.

From there we went to a waiting room to spend 30 minutes in isolation just to make sure there really were none of those bad after-effects.

On the site where all this occurred, I estimated 300 staff were employed to bring us in hourly shifts of about 50 apiece.   

A Tokyo fire brigade staff member administers a dose of vaccine at Aoyama University on August 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stanislav Kogiku

And that was just for the first jab. For the second jab, I had to overcome a severe bureaucratic problem when I tried, in vain, to change the appointed date. 

I decided to check the data. Just in the month after my saga, infections have risen from a daily 1,658 nationwide to 15,626 daily a month later.

That new figure means the disease is now firmly out of control. There is now no way each victim can be tracked down and contact traced, with all known contacts put into isolation.

Japan still seems not to want to realize the very dangerous nature of the Delta variant now rampant in this country. It has put its total faith in needles.

Australia’s Melbourne, for example, has had a 200-day lockdown imposed on itself. It chases down and contact traces each and every one of the few cases still erupting. Even so, it still cannot claim victory.   

New Zealand, which did have victory, declared a three-day national lockdown for a single new case discovered.

Wuhan in China needed a three-month absolute and total lockdown to recover from its virus attack.

 And in Japan? 

Lockdowns are halfhearted affairs, with no punishments threatened. Japan remains determined to stick to its traditional reliance on official appeals to obey rather than forceful legalistic measures – normally an admirable aspect of Japan’s consensus culture.

But the times are not normal. And the culture has moved on. In the back streets and alleys of entertainment areas, unmasked young people almost take pride in defying the empty appeals of the authorities.

Masked up and on the go in Tokyo. Photo: AFP / Shintaro Nakane / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Not surprisingly, the 20-30 cohort now represents a high percentage of the new cases reported daily.

We are told repeatedly how the 80% vaccination target will liberate us all. But we are only now moving to injection on demand. The clammy hands of bureaucracy still try to control us. And no one will commit firmly to the 80% full double injection October target.

Booster shots hardly get a mention.

Japan may be able to run its bullet trains to the minute. But when it comes to a medical emergency, it seems unable even to get to first base.   

Japan is now running into unexpected shortages in the dose supply. Someone forgot to place the orders on time. The problems never end.

Based in Japan, Gregory Clark is a former president and vice-president of two Japanese universities and a former Australian diplomat.