Coronavirus, the recipe from Japan: soy, no handshakes, masks and (very) civic sense


In the past two weeks, in Tokyo – one of the most densely populated megacities in the world with 14 million inhabitants – only 40 new cases of Covid-19 have been recorded. It seems that the “second wave” of the coronavirus epidemic is also ending in Japan: there have been around 16,000 infections (out of 126 million inhabitants) throughout the country, and “just” 784 deaths, and already 42 prefectures have been interrupted the confinement measures. The Japanese response to the crisis now appears to be among the most effective in the world. Now: because all along the first wave, which started with the first patient registered on January 16, it seemed that a disaster was about to explode.

Japan’s “risk factors”

The ingredients, moreover, were all there. Almost 30% of citizens are over 65, the demographic where Covid-19 mortality is highest. The Constitution, according to which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also able to declare (on 7 April last) the «state of emergency» (raised Monday 25 May), does not allow in an anti-authoritarian spirit prohibitions or fines, but only “advice” or “requests” from the governors: a response that to many, at first, seemed too shy, so much so that after the lucky neologism Abenomics (which designated the macroeconomic growth measures implemented by Abe) the Japanese coined the less positive term «Abenomasks“, Which alluded both to the masks sent to each family (in insufficient numbers) and to the character perceived as a bit of a nuisance of its anti-virus policies. Not surprisingly, while a study by the Morning Consult polling firm estimates that on average leaders from around the world have gained 9% of the votes, Shinzo Abe is one of the few who has lost it, falling by 10% as only the President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro.
They did not help the scarcity of tampons made by a very heavy and costly healthcare system; the feeling of many that the pandemic was underestimated, in the beginning, in order not to postpone the Olympic Games, a decision Abe made only at the end of March; the case of the cruise ship Diamond Princess, held off Tokyo in quarantine for nearly a month until 705 of the 3,700 people on board fell ill with Covid, and one died.

Different theories: from “natto” beans to weather

So how did Japan avoid disaster? The theories in the world have been the most disparate: a study gives many merits to natto, a compound of fermented soy beans very common on the table, which would enhance the immune response; the custom of Japanese doctors to treat the most difficult pneumonia; and even, according to an informal but not too facetious study, the low presence in the Japanese language of “plosive” consonants, which then force you to spit when you speak.

A mixture of civic sense and good habits

But the key ingredient would be, according to experts questioned by Guardian, a mixture of individual responsibility, civic sense of citizens and good government practices. The government: if he was slow to close the borders, Abe was among the first leaders in the world instead of completely ban crowding opportunities: museums, parks, cinemas were closed immediately, and all sporting and musical events canceled. Abe had the courage to close schools in March, in a shower of criticism: then diminished when many other countries in the world followed him. But the fundamental factor, according to researchers from the Waseda Institute – a Tokyo economic policy research center – was the culture of citizens. The strong sense of individual responsibility of the Japanese, who are already culturally accustomed to limit physical contact, to use the masks and a scrupulous one hygiene personal (and the religious taking off their shoes when entering the house) would have made the difference.

May 25, 2020 (change May 25, 2020 | 4:24 pm)


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