In sweeping pandemic policy bundle, free testing signals attitude change in Japan

The inclusion of free virus tests was largely overlooked in the sweeping coronavirus policy package Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rolled out Friday morning.

And yet, after nearly two years of criticism that Japan isn’t testing enough people, it was a subtle but strong sign of a shift in the country’s attitude toward proactive countermeasures and the long-term implications of the pandemic.

Kishida announced Friday that, while new cases are rising, individuals who can’t be vaccinated for health reasons and who don’t have symptoms but are concerned they have been infected can receive a PCR or antigen test before taking part in certain economic or social activities.

The plan is part of a greater effort to prepare the country for a sixth wave of the pandemic — and whatever comes afterwards — by bolstering hospitals, procuring more medical staff, expanding its vaccine campaign, administering booster shots and advancing the treatment of those with COVID-19.

“While new cases have declined substantially, it’s important to acknowledge the strong possibility that the virus will return and to prepare accordingly,” Kishida said Friday.

It’s not exactly clear who will be eligible and under what circumstances, but Kishida said Friday that the decision will be left to local governments, who have been directed to execute the plan at the latest by the end of March 2022.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Previously, PCR tests were free for people suffering common COVID-19 symptoms or individuals who had been in close contact with someone infected. In both cases, a doctor or public official had to give consent or provide a referral for the individual to get tested using taxpayer money.

Private companies have made PCR tests affordable and widely available to the public in major cities across Japan, but only more expensive, government-approved tests can be used for things such as travel abroad.

Since the early stages of the pandemic, Japan has been criticized both domestically and overseas by those who believe the country isn’t testing enough people and, therefore, doesn’t have the means to ascertain the true extent of outbreaks.

While the number of tests conducted each day in Japan has increased substantially — from a few thousand in early 2020 to more than 150,000 in August this year — the country still lags behind most other industrialized nations.

According to Our World In Data, Japan has been conducting 0.34 tests for every 1,000 individuals so far in November. In comparison, South Korea was carrying out 0.82 in late October, and this month the U.S. has been administering 3.17 tests per 1,000 people, China 3.67 and Australia 5.97.

Owing to the nature of the virus, a large number of those infected with COVID-19 don’t show symptoms, with many experts warning that a majority of cases go undetected. In many ways, detecting the virus is the hardest part.

A man and woman undergo PCR tests at a COVID-19 testing center in Seoul on Nov. 3. | AFP-JIJI
A man and woman undergo PCR tests at a COVID-19 testing center in Seoul on Nov. 3. | AFP-JIJI

It’s doubtful that providing free PCR and antigen tests to certain people and under specific circumstances will turn the tide in the battle against the pandemic. But the plan, along with the introduction of digital vaccine passports by the end of the year, could be a sign that Japan, along with the rest of the world, is waking up to the unfortunate possibility that the pandemic won’t end anytime soon.

The delta variant, which is thought to be twice as contagious as the original strain of the coronavirus, pushed the pandemic to new heights during the fifth wave over the summer.

Public officials are worried the same could happen as the country prepares for winter. Last year, a nationwide wave ignited after the virus began to spread among family and friends spending more time indoors in close quarters to escape the cold weather.

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