The Japanese Island of Hokkaido Lifted Its Coronavirus Lockdown Too Soon and Became a Warning to the World

The Japanese Island of Hokkaido Lifted Its Coronavirus Lockdown Too Soon and Became a Warning to the World, by Abigail Leonard.

Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offers a grim lesson in the next phase of the battle against COVID-19. It acted quickly and contained an early outbreak of the coronavirus with a 3-week lockdown. But, when the governor lifted restrictions, a second wave of infections hit even harder.

Twenty-six days later, the island was forced back into lockdown. …

The story in more detail:

Hokkaido’s story is a sobering reality check for leaders across the world as they consider easing coronavirus lockdowns: Experts say restrictions were lifted too quickly and too soon because of pressure from local businesses, coupled with a false sense of security in its declining infection rate. …

Hokkaido’s leaders acted early and decisively … Hokkaido’s story starts Jan. 31, at the annual snow festival in the island’s capital city of Sapporo. .. Around the start of the festival, Hokkaido doctors saw their first coronavirus patient, a woman from Wuhan, China. Then several more Chinese tourists fell ill and soon the virus was circulating in the general population. On Feb. 28, exactly a month after the first case was reported, there were 66 cases, the highest of any prefecture in Japan, and infections were accelerating, so the governor declared a state of emergency. …

Schools closed, as did many restaurants and businesses, even though they weren’t legally compelled to shut. In Japan, the government can’t use police or military to enforce a lockdown, it can only ask—and in some cases beg—businesses to close. That’s in part because the country’s constitution, written after the Second World War with the help of the Americans, has strict protections for civil liberties in order to avoid a return to fascism. …

By mid-March, the health crisis was stabilizing—new cases were in the low single digits and even zero on some days—but complaints from businesses were increasing.

Hokkaido’s two main industries—agriculture and tourism—had been devastated. Farmers watched produce rot because restaurants and school lunch programs stopped buying it. An estimated 50 food processing companies went bankrupt. …

On March 18, Suzuki assembled his advisers and decided it was time to ease restrictions. Nagase, the doctor who helped coordinate the government’s response, says that at that time, officials had only a limited understanding of the virus and how quickly it could spread. “Hokkaido was the first big outbreak here, so we were really operating in the dark.” Without sufficient data, doctors based their recommendations on the idea that the coronavirus spread like influenza. Nagase says he now regrets not pushing for more testing from the beginning.

The announcement lifting restrictions came just before a three-day weekend; Hokkaido residents spilled onto streets and lingered in cafes, celebrating the conclusion of their weeks-long confinement. That likely kicked off the second wave of infections, says Nagase.

Further fueling it, people from other parts of Japan saw that Hokkaido had relaxed restrictions and began travelling there. .. That likely seeded even more infections and soon the second outbreak was in full bloom.

By April 9—exactly three weeks after the lockdown was lifted—there was a record number of new cases: 18 in one day. On April 14, Hokkaido was forced to announce a state of emergency for a second time. … Businesses are now preparing for the long haul.