Panic buying has left many of Tokyo’s store shelves empty after a record rise in new coronavirus cases prompted the city’s governor to ask residents to stay at home this weekend.
Yuriko Koike, whose overnight announcement came less than 24 hours after Tokyo and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the summer Games, warned that the world’s biggest city could be on course for an “explosive spike” in new cases.
On Wednesday, there were 41 new infections in Tokyo, a record one-day rise after 17 cases were reported on Tuesday and 16 on Monday. There are 212 cases in total in Tokyo.
Ms Koike, citing medical experts, requested that residents work from home and to refrain from dining out in the evenings. She also called on universities to delay the start of classes from early April, the start of the new school year for Japan.
“In order to avoid an explosive growth in infections, the co-operation of everyone is critical. We ask that each of you act with a sense of urgency,” Ms Koike said.
Following Ms Koike’s appeal, Tokyo residents rushed to hoard preserved food such as instant noodles and pasta. One of Japan’s largest retailers said it would increase supplies in anticipation of another surge in demand.
Japan has taken a different approach to many other countries in its battle against the virus. Until recently, it tested very selectively, arguing it had to focus on the critically ill.
But 1,300 infections in a population of 127m have raised questions over whether its strategy was a success or was merely disguising the breadth of the crisis.
“We are not heading for an immediate lockdown,” Ms Koike said. “But concern has risen this week about an explosion in infections and we are now entering a critical phase.”
Her decision to stop short of declaring the kind of lockdown that has been imposed in the UK and other countries came as Japan’s foreign ministry raised its warning level for the rest of the world. It recommended against all non-essential travel outside the country.
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Prime minister Shinzo Abe, however, has not declared a state of emergency, which means that shops, restaurants and bars have remained open.
Efforts to convince inhabitants of Tokyo to avoid parks and the traditional picnics during the cherry blossom season last weekend were unsuccessful. Tokyo’s most famous shopping streets of Omotesando, Ginza and Shibuya remain crowded and nightlife in hostess clubs has shown little sign of a slow down.
On Wednesday, Ms Koike made a pointed reference to the fact that there would be no spectators at a martial arts tournament this weekend in central Tokyo. An earlier round of the same competition last weekend in Saitama was watched by a tightly-packed crowd of 6,500, despite efforts by the local government to stop it going ahead.
Japan’s response to the virus has involved a number of mixed messages. On the state broadcaster NHK evening news programme that led with Ms Koike’s call for people to remain at home, the weather report recommended light clothes for anyone planning to head out this weekend.
Mr Abe’s decision in late February to close schools was initially seen as bold and proactive but last week, despite the continuing rise in infections, he said he would explore ways to reopen schools in April.