The number of confirmed cases of the virus has increased in recent weeks after it appeared that Japan’s initial response had brought the virus under control. As of Wednesday, there were more than 2,300 cases across Japan and 57 deaths, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University.
This spike has seen a series of new restrictions put in place in Tokyo and other major cities, and a series of protective equipment, including face masks. Abe said on Wednesday that supplying cloth masks to the hardest hit areas “would be useful in meeting the rapidly increasing demand.”
But Abe’s proposal to send two masks to each household sparked outrage and mockery online on Wednesday, with the hashtag “Mask of Abe” and “live your two masks” trending on Twitter.
Many said the move was dull and would not take effect quickly enough to stand a chance of stopping the spread of the virus, as masks should not be distributed before the end of the month. Others have dubbed politics “Abenomask politics” while satirical memes showing well-known cartoon characters sharing a mask between four family members have appeared online.
A declaration of a state of emergency would allow prefectural governors to send a stronger message when it comes to encouraging the public to stay at home, but the measures will not be legally binding.
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike last week urged city residents of about 13.5 million people to telecommute wherever possible and avoid bars, restaurants and public gatherings until ‘to April 12. May 6.
Koike called on Abe on Tuesday to issue the national emergency statement after the capital recorded 78 new cases, its highest jump in a day to date.
Abe said the government would prioritize the distribution of masks to about 50 million households in areas where coronavirus infections have increased. Distribution will begin later this month and every household with a registered mailing address will receive the masks by mail, which is part of a larger economic package of coronaviruses the government is deploying.
Over the past week, Japan has been quick to avoid an explosive outbreak of infections. While the current count is around 2,300 cases, Japan – a country of more than 127 million people – has tested just over 30,000, compared to 394,000 tests performed in neighboring South Korea, which has just over 51 million inhabitants.
The seemingly low infection rate has created what many experts fear is a false sense of security, with people always going out in public, some not wearing masks, to see cherry blossoms, a hobby traditional spring.
Medical experts warned on Wednesday that the Japanese healthcare system could not bear the pressure if the coronavirus infections continued to spread.
A government panel warned that although Japan has not seen an explosive increase in infections so far, hospitals and medical clinics in Tokyo, Aichi, Kanagawa, Osaka and Hyogo are increasingly in demand and that “Drastic countermeasures must be taken as soon as possible”.
The economic repercussions are also worrying. Earlier this week, the ruling party in Japan pledged to get a 60 trillion yen ($ 556 billion) stimulus package to cushion an economy already hit by the postponement of the Olympics and the coronavirus pandemic.
DIY masks in the midst of shortages
While Abe’s proposed mask for fabric has sparked anger, Japan is not the only place to think about the use of improvised facial clothing, amid a widespread shortage of appropriate protective equipment. .
The use of masks has been widespread in Asia since the start of the pandemic, but shortages and conflicting opinions in many western countries have resulted in many people having withdrawn, despite widespread evidence that masks help protect against spread of the virus.
Cloth masks are not as effective as surgical masks or respirators, but they offer limited protection and are easier to produce.
People in the United States have mobilized to create homemade masks for health care workers and other high-risk populations amid widespread shortages and complaints from hospitals that they are not getting enough supplies.
In March, American retailer JOANN Fabrics and Craft Stores released a video tutorial on making face masks. The retailer encouraged people to drop them off in stores, where they will be donated to local hospitals.
But with a shrinking supply of N95 respirators and an increase in virus cases, healthcare facilities are preparing for the worst, and Japan may not be the last country to distribute cloth masks to its citizens.
CNN’s Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.