The Final Countdown, Part 3


The Unbearable Lightness of Politicians’ Words

   2020 began with COVID-19 and is about to end with it. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the world into turmoil and has even sucked Japan into its vortex, with no end in sight.

   On December 9, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, where the most recent wave of infections now defies control, delivered a speech before parliament. The Chancellor spoke of the budget required to grapple with the spread of infection but as she approached the end of her speech, she set aside her usual dispassionate style to address the people from the heart, as it were. The gist of what she said was, “Scientists are telling us that we must reduce social contact to the absolute minimum during the Christmas holidays. I understand how difficult this will be. At a time when the traditional Christmas preparations for selling hot wine and waffles at street stalls are underway, to be told by the government that you must enjoy these treats at home rather than outside with your friends and family must strike many of you as sad or irksome. I regret this state of affairs, and apologize from the bottom of my heart. However, if we do not reduce social contact, we will pay the price in 590 deaths every day. To my mind, this is something that must never be allowed to happen. And for this reason, we must all act.” To this, she added that, having been born and raised in former East Germany, she understood very well the unpleasantness of having one’s individual freedom curtailed by the state. Even so, she appealed to all the people for patience. Merkel’s speech was broadcast on NHK, the BBC, CNN, and France 2 and touched the hearts of people the world over.

   In Japan as well, the spread of COVID-19 shows no signs of abatement even as we approach the end of the year. While on the one hand appealing to the people to curtail their social activities, our government has on the other hand failed to propose any concrete measures. Their strategy for dealing with the pandemic has fallen woefully behind the curve at every juncture and has produced no results. While urging the citizenry to limit the number of guests at each restaurant table to five, the Prime Minister himself has blatantly ignored this injunction. On being cited for this behavior, he offered a feeble apology, saying that he was “sincere in regretting that his behavior has caused misunderstanding among the citizens.”

   What, precisely, did he mean by “misunderstanding” here? Did he mean to say, “I haven’t done anything wrong, but if you’ve misunderstood my actions in any way, I apologize”? What is more absurd is the sycophantic defense of his actions offered by another cabinet member, who is quoted as saying, “We aren’t claiming that it isn’t alright to dine in groups of more than five people. We haven’t even got the authority to enforce this recommendation.” The statement that there is no expert opinion to back up such restrictions has become something of a shibboleth of this administration, and as the end of the year approaches, the Prime Minister’s mantra to take “pre-emptive action” against the pandemic cannot but ring hollow to our ears.

   Politicians’ making excuses for not following the very recommendations they seek to impose on the people is no new phenomenon. At the very start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister’s wife urged the nation to forego the pleasures of cherry blossom viewing in Tokyo’s public parks but thought nothing of posting photos of herself on social media making merry with a large party of fellow revelers during a nighttime viewing of sakura flowers. When his wife was criticized for her actions, the Prime Minister defended her, saying, “My wife was not hosting an Ohanami party of the sort we’re talking about. What’s wrong with going to a restaurant?”

   His obtuseness defies belief. Did the speaker not comprehend that the risk of infection is heightened by large crowds of people making merry and standing cheek-by-jowl for group photographs regardless of whether this happens under sakura blossoms in a park or in an expensive restaurant? Whether it is blossom viewing inside a restaurant or large, end-of-year drinking parties, politicians apparently do not understand why this is not acceptable under the current circumstances or are unable to stop themselves despite knowing better. The injunction written in the ancient Book of Rites, to wit, “Let him who would rule first set his own house in order” is a bit of sage advice I would like to offer to our two Prime Ministers.

   The infection rate is lower in Japan than in the US or Europe. Yet, when I reflect on the events of the past year, I am not at all convinced that this is due to prevention measures. No sooner had the “first wave” of infections shown signs of remitting than the government lifted their declaration of emergency, causing a resurgence of infections. And before the outcome of this “second wave” became clear, they rushed to implement the GO-TO campaign, thus inducing the now intractable “third wave” of infections. The government’s policies in the past year can be likened to a man rushing to pour oil on a fire that has already burnt low, then fanning it into a conflagration. On November 25, the government announced the “three-week challenge,” appealing to the people to restrict their activities during this time to reduce opportunities for infection. Yet they waited until December 1 to discourage the elderly residents of Tokyo from using the Go-To travel plan and delayed the nationwide cancellation of this service until December 14. What phrase can better describe this series of actions but “behind the curve”? I put the term, “wave” in inverted commas because at present we haven’t really succeeded in containing the infections—not once–but have rather endured multiple resurgences since March in what has turned out to be a steady and unbroken spread of the pandemic.

   Germany recognized that from its very inception, the COVID-19 pandemic was a threat to national security second to none since World War II. Can Japanese politicians be credited with the same foresight and resolve to come to grips with the issue? Did they have the prudence to gather disinterested information from various sources to formulate an appropriate policy based on scientific analysis?
Did they responsibly implement strategies with the confidence and resolve to field any criticisms of the results? The answer is no; they had no foresight, no resolve, no good faith. As of this writing, there are 1337 new cases of infection in Tokyo alone. The state of the pandemic and of the economy on December 31, 2020 are the marks that the national and local governments have earned for their pandemic containment policies. Curbing the pandemic after allowing it to spread to widely will be no mean feat. Severer restrictions will be placed on the activities of the people, and a longer time will be needed to prevail over the virus. The possibility will also increase that individual strategies will fail to yield quick results. In times like these, can taxpayers be rightfully expected to obey the behests of politicians who are driven only by the profit before their noses or adhere to prevention strategies hammered out by an administration incapable of even rudimentary scientific thinking? If the people refuse to do so, the pandemic will truly be out of control, infections will spread yet further, and our responses will be ever more challenged.

   The words of our politicians today have no resonance. They have no resonance because they are spoken by people without good faith or sincerity who are only good at striking a pose before the cameras as they utter streams of catchy but vacuous phrases. When proposing a policy that may incur the ire of taxpayers, they are careful to append the phrase, “After consulting with experts,” “At the discretion of the respective local governments” or “The government must first be asked to help,” thus leaving the back door ajar, as it were, to duck out of any responsibility should things go awry. An administration that measures it longevity by populist support is incapable of demanding the people’s cooperation to implement measures that require sacrifice in dire straits. The government’s actions fall more and more behind the proverbial curve until the administration self-destructs. The unpaid bill for this administrative collapse is sent, of course, to the taxpayer. Yet as citizens in a democratic state we must own up to the fact that it is we who have elected these individuals as our leaders. Things being what they are now, we have no choice but to submit to restrictions on our social activities based on sound scientific rationale, even if we find this irksome or painful. The slower we are to submit, the longer we will live under some restriction of our social life. When politics and governance are floundering, the task of the expert is emphatically not to gather evidence that merely serve to prop up the scenarios painted by those in power. In a democratic state, all citizens have the duty to embrace their responsibility and act accordingly.