As Japan's ruling party seeks a new leader to replace outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, health experts worry that his successor may prioritize reviving the recession-hit economy over its pledge to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, seen as the front runner to succeed Abe, pledged to focus on ending the epidemic, but he's been mum on details.
Suga was seen as a key backer of a domestic travel campaign that critics said risked spreading the infection from major cities to the countryside.
"Suga will most certainly prioritize the economy over infection control," said Fumie Sakamoto, who manages infection prevention at St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo. "I'm not expecting anything new happening under Suga's leadership.
Disease experts advising the government said on Wednesday that a second wave of infections appeared to peak in late July but trends in Osaka, Fukuoka, and Okinawa remain concerning.
With almost 70,000 cases and 1,327 fatalities, Japan has weathered the pandemic better than most major economies. Many experts attribute that success to hygiene and mask wearing among the Japanese populace rather than to government policies.
Of some 6 million people who have taken part in the government's Go-To Travel campaign, only 10 infections have been tied to the program, said Takaji Wakita, chairman of the government's expert panel. Even so, more study is needed, he added.
Suga pledged to carry on much of the policies initiated by Abe. He would inherit a health care system that nearly collapsed under the burden of serious COVID-19 cases in April and May, and a bureaucratic system that has kept daily tests well below capacity.
Japan's data collection system isn't up to the task of tracking and analyzing infections, while a health alert system has been muddled, said Kazuki Shimizu, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
"The government seriously needs to review previous mistakes in health communication," Shimizu said. "A health emergency must not be managed by the wishful thinking."