Saturday, August 29, 2020

Long, long summer

A long, long summer and a long, long year. After a very well-contained first wave of infections, COVID started spreading rapidly in Japan again, and especially here on Okinawa. 

A small part of the blame might be put on the American bases; they imported the out of control situation from the USA, and some employees apparently decided that quarantine recommendations didn't apply to them, not when they could join large outdoor parties on their national day. But that outbreak was contained pretty well.

No, the main culprit — of this as of so many other Japanese problems — is the LDP-led government. The economy is tanking, here as everywhere, and after several earlier public relations fiascos (such as spending a fortune on badly designed masks people didn't want) and dogged corruption charges they decided Something Must Be Done. Something with public appeal; something that puts money in the pocket of their corporate donors; something that distracts people from misuse of public funds.

And in a pandemic, when the key thing is to avoid crowds, avoid unnecessary travel and staying at home, what could possibly be a better stimulus idea than a "Go To Travel" summer vacation travel campaign? Yes, they are simultaneously telling people to stay at home and giving a 30% discount on resort hotel bookings.

So of course people travel. And they bring the virus along with them. Especially to Okinawa, the premier summer holiday destination. But also the poorest part of the country, with the fewest ICU beds and a shortage of qualified medical personnel. We are now the hardest hit area in the country by population.

Fortunately, the government has been as inept at creating the campaign as they are with anything else. The whole thing has been a confused mess with contradictory information and no guidance for the businesses. As Tokyo infection rates soared, they added a last-minute restriction excluding Tokyo residents, with no plan of who would pay the inevitable cancellations, or any idea if such an exclusion would even be legal.

And as the infection numbers continued swelling, people sensibly started to rethink their vacation plans. Stores on Okinawa are almost as empty again as they were during the first wave of infections, and the number of rental cars on the road — a good indication of tourist numbers — have declined a lot again after the initial burst in June and early July.

Now the infection numbers are finally dropping slightly again, both on Okinawa and on the mainland. Turns out that people in general have the sense to take precautions and avoid undue risk, whether the government wants them to or not. 


Speaking of which, the government is in turmoil again, as Abe has decided to quit. This is only about a year before he has to leave the post and call a new election, and less than a year before his last pet project, the Olympics, may (or may not) finally be held in Tokyo. 

I wish I could say the reason is political; that he was ousted in some party power struggle, or that his several corruption scandals finally caught up with him. Indeed, some Japanese seem to believe he is quitting before he can get fired. But the reason seems to be both more prosaic and more sad. He has been visibly ill lately, and the announcement came just days after a follow-up medical appointment. 

Abe has a chronic intestinal disorder; that's what ended his first round as prime minister years ago, and a lot of people speculate that this has taken a turn for the worse. This is very possible. But he is not actually leaving just yet; instead he will stay put until his party can elect a successor. He is well enough to continue to work for the time being in other words, but too ill to stay on until the end of his term in a year.

This could of course — as some speculate — simply be a pretext to leave; he has become the longest sitting prime minister, he has no real hope of accomplishing anything else of substance (the Olympics probably don't stand a chance), and leaving may take the wind out of the ongoing corruption cases dogging him. But this could also be the final political acts of a man who received some very bad medical news and is putting his affairs in order while still able to do so.

If the reason is medical there's no reason to be happy. I may dislike his politics, the corruption scandals and his lack of leadership, but I wouldn't wish a life-threatening disease on him for that either. I hope he pulls through, gets better again, and can enjoy a long healthy life out of the stress of the public eye.