Omicron pushes Japan to consider living with Covid-19 like the flu

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) – Calls are growing in Japan to treat Covid-19 as endemic, adding to a global chorus pushing for a return to normal life as people tire of pandemic restrictions, vaccines become more accessible and virus deaths remain low.

Drawing on data that shows Omicron posing a less severe risk than previous variants, public figures from Tokyo’s governor to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have signalled their support for downgrading the legal status of the virus in Japan.

The change would widen healthcare access for patients, effectively casting the virus as no different than the flu.

It is a debate playing out around the world, particularly in the West. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez called on Europe to treat the virus as a constant of everyday life in a recent interview on the radio station Cadena Ser.

And countries everywhere from India to the UK are resisting reverting to lockdowns despite the swift onset of omicron as politicians lose appetite for mass disruptions.

In Asia, which has generally been far tougher on containment of the virus since the pandemic began, Japan is in many ways the most likely to shift.

Officials never deployed mandatory lockdowns, in part because the Constitution doesn’t include the right to take emergency measures during crises.

Even as infections climbed, Japan distinguished its policies from iron-fisted ones in places like China. Many of the requests for businesses to restrict opening hours or require vaccination can simply be ignored.

Downgrading Covid’s status would also have the immediate impact of freeing up medical resources for Japanese patients in hospitals currently refusing to treat Covid patients because they’re not equipped to manage infectious diseases.

Even so, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has urged caution and pushed back against his predecessor, who made the call for going endemic in an interview earlier this month with a local news outlet.

Mr Kishida told reporters last week that it’s still too early to downgrade the virus given the Omicron caseload.

Japan reported more than 30,000 new cases on Tuesday, though “severe” ones rose by just 18, according to national broadcaster NHK.

And broadly speaking, the public has also supported efforts to keep the virus out: After the government barred new foreign arrivals in November, an opinion poll found that almost 90 per cent of people supported the measure.

Nevertheless, the topic has growing resonance in Japan, with Mr Abe one of the highest-profile backers of softening curbs.

“Why don’t we go further this year and change the legal position of the coronavirus,” he said in an interview with Yomiuri. “As hospitalisation is the principle treatment, the burden on medical institutions and health centres is heavy. We need to be cautious of Omicron, but if drugs and vaccines can prevent the disease from becoming severe, we could treat Covid like seasonal influenza.”

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