© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People shop amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at a traditional market in Seoul
By Rocky Swift and Sangmi Cha
TOKYO/SEOUL (Reuters) – Japan and South Korea grappled with surging coronavirus cases and growing public frustration on Monday as Japan’s prime minister tiptoed around a contentious travel subsidy programme while an anxious South Korean president warned of harsh curbs.
But Japan, with a focus on the economic costs, has steered clear of tough lockdowns. It tackled its first wave of infections in the spring by asking people to refrain from going out and for businesses to close or curtail operating hours.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said last week a halt to a campaign that subsidises domestic tourism was not under consideration, citing economic considerations.
Critics say encouraging people to travel has helped spread infections. Media reported on Monday that Suga could restrict the programme after weekend polls showed his support had eroded over his handling of the pandemic.
Across the sea in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in also faces sliding ratings as clusters of new infections fuel criticism over what many see as slack containment.
“Our back is against the wall,” Moon said. “This is a crucial moment to devote all our virus control capabilities and administrative power to stopping the coronavirus.”
South Korea reported a new daily record of 1,030 infections on Sunday, a big worry for a country for months held up as a mitigation success story but still a fraction of the tallies being seen in some European countries and the United States, where vaccines are being rolled out.
Few Asian countries expect to get significant amounts of coronavirus vaccines in coming weeks as they manage distribution schedules, allow time to check for any inoculation side effects elsewhere or run their own late-stage trials.
Instead, they are counting on the methods that have largely kept infections in check for months – ahead of the curve testing, stringent travel curbs, strict social distancing and masks.
China, for instance, where the virus emerged almost a year ago, has managed to limit new cases with tough, sweeping action.
It locked down an area of more than 250,000 people after half a dozen cases were confirmed near the Russian border in the province of Heilongjiang, the Associated Press reported on Monday.
New Zealand, which has been particularly successful in tackling the pandemic, said on Monday it had agreed to open a “travel bubble” with Australia in the first quarter of 2021.
South Korea has warned that coronavirus restrictions may be raised to the highest Phase 3 level, which would essentially mean a lockdown for the first time in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
In Seoul, schools will close from Tuesday, a step towards the imposition of Phase 3. Last month, the government banned year-end parties.
In Japan, which is hoping to stage the postponed summer Olympics next year, testing has remained relatively low, peaking at about 50,000 in one day recently. Testing in Tokyo, which has the capacity for more than 60,000, is now about 9,000 a day.
“Whether a country or region is doing enough testing should be assessed based on the positivity rate and not on the number of tests,” said Fumie Sakamoto, infection control manager at the St Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo.
“The positivity rate for Tokyo is now over 6%, so we should be doing a bit more testing to bring the number down.”
South Korea, meanwhile, has ramped up testing to more than 22,000 people a day, compared with roughly 16,000 a day in September.
(This story corrects last paragraph to say S.Korea ramped up testing to more than 22,000 people a day from 16,000 a day in September, not 89,000 people a day as of Sunday compared with over 22,000 a day in early October)