Japan’s pandemic deaths low, but future success uncertain

Tokyo, Japan — Japan has kept its deaths from the new coronavirus low despite a series of missteps that beg the question of whether it can prevent future waves of infections. Authorities were criticized for bungling a cruise ship quarantine and were slow to close Japan’s borders.

They have conducted only a fraction of the tests needed to find and isolate patients and let businesses operate almost as usual, even under a pandemic state of emergency.

But the roughly 900 deaths, or 7 per million people, in Japan are far fewer than the 320 per million in the U.S. and more than 550 per million in Italy and Britain.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 25 declared an end to a 7-week pandemic state of emergency, lauding “the power of the Japan model” and winning World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s praise as a “success.”

Experts say it’s unclear exactly how Japan has managed to keep outbreaks in check, but the country needs to use the reprieve to beef up testing and healthcare systems to better find, isolate and treat patients to minimize future waves of infections.

A government-commissioned panel concluded that early contact-tracing helped pinpoint outbreaks, slowing the spread of the virus until late March, when a surge of cases overwhelmed the extremely labor intensive process of investigating clusters of infections.

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