Japan becomes first major country to officially recognize Covid poses same threat as flu — in seminal pandemic moment
- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made the announcement on Friday
- Category would downgrade the disease from Class 2 to Class 5
- New approach would treat COVID-19 as a normal part of medical services rather than a medical emergency
Japan will start considering Covid as being equivalent to the seasonal flu — a sign of the attitude shift toward the pandemic.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced on Friday that Covid would be reclassified to disease category five from the current level two.
In practical terms, it ditches a recommendation to wear masks in indoor public spaces and ends the need for infected people and close contacts to self-isolate.
But symbolically, it shows how major countries are finally learning to live with Covid rather than treating it like an immediate public health emergency.
Commuters wear masks outside Tokyo Station in Tokyo, Japan on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023
The new classification in Japan – which will kick in in Spring – recommends patients only to wear masks indoors if symptomatic – as opposed to the general recommendation for everyone currently in place.
Mask requirements for coronavirus were last revised in May, when the Government stopped urging people to mask-up outdoors.
Unlike in the UK and US, masks are more culturally accepted in Asia so many Japanese continue to wear coverings both indoors and outdoors.
‘As we try to restore the lifestyles of a normal Japan, we would like to shift various measures step by step,’ Kishida said.
‘In order to return to our ordinary daily life in Japan while pursuing measures to adapt to living with the coronavirus, we will study concrete measures to gradually move on to a next step,’ he added.
The current Class 2 disease categorization puts Covid in the same criteria as tuberculosis and SARS.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, on January 14, 2023
Covid’s dying days?
Early data suggests virus killed 267k Americans last year, down 44% from 2021.
At the start of COVID-19, Japan implemented the three Cs to prevent the spread of the disease — closed spaces, crowded places and close contact systems.
But a downgrade to disease category five would finally bring an end to those rules.
Some more skeptical experts in Japan have questioned the timing of the announcement, given that Covid cases are on the rise again.
The current total number of new cases each day in Japan is 338 per 100,000 people, a number that is up 40 percent from the previous week.
‘It’s still too early to tell if the current wave of infections has peaked,’ Takaji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, said at a panel session at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo on Jan. 17.
In recent weeks, there has also been an uptick in deaths correlated with a rise in infections in the elderly. Japan suffered with 500 fatalities last Saturday.
‘People 80 or older account for a bigger ratio among those infected compared with last summer,’ Katsunobu Kato, the Japanese minister of health, labor and welfare, said.
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