The Japanese authorities understood covid-19 better than most

The Japanese authorities understood covid-19 better than most

That has helped keep Japan’s outbreak relatively small


When the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship suffering from an outbreak of covid-19, arrived in Japan in February, it seemed like a stroke of bad luck. A small floating petri dish threatened to turn the Japanese archipelago into a big one. In retrospect, however, the early exposure taught the authorities lessons that have helped make Japan’s epidemic the mildest among the world’s big economies, despite a recent surge in infections. In total 2,487 people have died of the coronavirus in Japan, just over half the number in China and fewer people than on a single day in America several times over the past week. Japan has suffered just 18 deaths per million people, a higher rate than in China, but by far the lowest in the g7, a club of big, industrialised democracies. (Germany comes in second, at 239.) Most strikingly, Japan has achieved this success without strict lockdowns or mass testing—the main weapons in the battle against covid-19 elsewhere.

“From the beginning we did not aim at containment,” says Oshitani Hitoshi, a virologist who sits on an expert panel advising the government. That would require identifying all possible cases, which is not feasible in a country of Japan’s size when the majority of infections produce mild or no symptoms, argues Mr Oshitani: “Even if you test everyone once per week, you’ll still miss some.” Japan performs the fewest tests in the g7: an average of 270 a day for every million people, compared with 4,000 or so in America and Britain (see chart).

Instead, the government tried to apply the lessons of the Diamond Princess. After trained quarantine officers and nurses were infected aboard the ship, despite following protocols for viruses that spread through droplets, Mr Oshitani’s team concluded that the virus spread through the air.