Japan needs to step up its COVID-19 testing capacity

Students wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, clap along instead of singing a song during a music class at Takanedai Daisan elementary school, which practices various methods of social distancing in order to prevent the infection, in Funabashi, east of Tokyo, Japan 16 July, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Kim).

Author: Keiichiro Kobayashi, Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

As COVID-19 cases began to mount in Japan in February, it became clear that the government needed to respond with strong policy measures. It was crucial to increase testing capacity and adopt isolation measures to contain the virus and allow economic activity to resume quickly. The Japanese government needed to set and clearly announce a timeline and numerical targets for testing capacity and medical care provision. Some of these ideas have been incorporated in the government’s Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform 2020, published on 17 July, 2020.

The major challenge Japan currently faces is its extremely limited testing capacity compared with other advanced countries. Japan’s polymerase chain reaction testing capacity is only 32,000 tests per day (as of 12 July), compared to 400,000 in the United States and 160,000 in Germany. Japan needs to systematically increase its capacity to 200,000 by the end of November.

Japan’s ultimate target should be to reopen the economy and to carry on normally as before. In other words, Japan must avoid using economic shutdowns as an emergency measure to stop infection. If the country continues the cycle of reopening the economy and shutting it down when cases spike again, the number of suicides due to economic difficulties could exceed the number of deaths from the COVID-19 virus itself. Japan could also find itself in an economic recession of unprecedented scale, leading to losses of about 30 trillion yen (US$285 billion) if economic growth contracts by six percent.

To avoid an economic shutdown, Japan needs to prevent the number of cases from exceeding and overwhelming hospital capacity. Top priorities should be to increase Japan’s capacity to provide medical care, enforce measures that can help prevent cases from becoming severe, and minimise community …continue reading