It’s almost an overnight success story, but with Covid-19 cases at one stage pushing more than 25,000 a day, somehow Japan has managed to turn the tide.
And the strangest thing is no one quite knows how they did it.
Daily new Covid-19 cases have plummeted from a mid-August peak of nearly 6,000 in Tokyo, with caseloads in the densely populated capital now routinely below 100 — an 11-month low.
In fact, in Tokyo alone, in August, there was a total of 125,600 infections. It’s also important to remember Tokyo hosted the Olympics games from the end of July through to August.
But since then, cases have plummeted. According to Johns Hopkins University’s Covid-19 data, Japan had just 319 cases in total on Friday. On September 25, it had more than 2,700.
Japan has never had a lockdown either. There have been four state of emergencies issued though.
Japan's successful vaccination campaign
Some possible factors in Japan’s success include a belated but remarkably rapid vaccination campaign, an emptying out of many nightlife areas as fears spread during the recent surge in cases, a widespread practice, well before the pandemic, of wearing masks and bad weather in late August that kept people home.
But with vaccine efficacy gradually waning and winter approaching, experts worry that without knowing what exactly why cases have dropped so drastically, Japan could face another wave like this summer, when hospitals overflowed with serious cases and deaths soared — though the numbers were lower than pre-vaccination levels.
Many credit the vaccination campaign, especially among younger people, for bringing infections down. Nearly 70 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Dr Kazuhiro Tateda, a Toho University professor of virology, believes vaccinations have been the key to the turnaround.
“Rapid and intensive vaccinations in Japan among those younger than 64 might have created a temporary condition similar to herd-immunity,” Dr Tateda said.
Dr Tateda noted that vaccination rates surged in July to September, just as the more infectious delta variant was spreading fast.
He cautioned, however, that breakthrough infections in the US, Britain and other places where inoculations began months earlier than in Japan show that vaccines alone are not perfect and efficacy gradually wears off.
Japan’s vaccinations started in mid-February, with health workers and the elderly first in line.
Shortages of imported vaccines kept progress slow until late May, when the supply stabilised and daily inoculation targets were raised to above one million doses to maximise protection before the July 23-August 8 Olympics.
The number of daily shots rose to about 1.5 million in July, pushing vaccination rates from 15 per cent in early July to 65 per cent by early October.
A state of emergency
Japan’s state of emergency measures were not lockdowns but requests that focused mainly on bars and eateries, which were asked to close early and not serve alcohol. Many people continued to commute on crowded trains, and attended sports and cultural events at stadiums with some social distancing controls.
The emergency requests have ended and the government is gradually expanding social and economic activity while allowing athletic events and package tours on a trial basis using vaccination certificates and increased testing.
To speed up inoculations, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who left office recently, expanded the number of health workers legally eligible to give shots, opened large-scale vaccination centres and promoted workplace vaccinations beginning in late June.
Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura told a recent government advisory board meeting that he estimates vaccinations helped some 650,000 people avoid infection and saved more than 7,200 lives between March and September.
Many experts initially blamed younger people, seen drinking on the streets and in parks when the bars were closed, for spreading the virus, but said data showed many in their 40s and 50s also frequented nightlife districts. Most serious cases and deaths were among unvaccinated people in their 50s or younger.
Takaji Wakita, director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told reporters earlier this month he is worried people have already resumed partying in nightlife districts, noting that the slowing of infections may have already hit bottom.
“Looking ahead, it is important to further push down the caseloads in case of a future resurgence of infections,” Mr Wakita said.
Public health experts want a comprehensive investigation into why infections have dropped off.
An analysis of GPS data showed that people’s movements in major downtown entertainment districts fell during the most recent, third state of emergency, which ended September 30.
Atsushi Nishida, the director of the Research Center for Social Science & Medicine Sciences at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science, said he believes the caseload drop could be due to less people visiting entertainment hubs such as nightclubs.
But people headed back to entertainment districts as soon as the recent emergency ended, he said, and that may “affect the infection situation in coming weeks.”
with The Associated Press
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