keep the Summer Games on track.
Having initially appeared to contain the spread of Covid-19 – despite being one of the earliest countries outside of China to report a case – Japan is now facing the prospect of a sudden explosion in infections.
With authorities poised to tighten containment measures, which could see Tokyo placed into lockdown, critics claim the capital manipulated figures and has only started taking the outbreak seriously after agreeing to delay the Olympic Games until 2021.
“In order to make an impression that the city was taking control of the coronavirus, Tokyo avoided making strict requests and made the number of patients look smaller,” former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama said in a tweet.
“The coronavirus has spread while they waited. [For Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike] it was Olympics first, not Tokyo’s residents.”
On Sunday, Tokyo recorded its biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases, bringing the city’s total to 430, as prime minister Shinzo Abe warned that the country’s strategy for tackling the pandemic was “barely holding up”.
A rise in untraceable cases mushrooming in Tokyo, Osaka and other urban areas has raised concerns that Japan is on the brink of losing control.
“Once infections overshoot, our strategy … will instantly fall apart,” Mr Abe said.
To combat the rising number of cases in the capital, which has a population of more than 13 million, residents have been urged to avoid non-essential, non-urgent outings until 12 April, while Ms Koike said last week that a lockdown could be needed if the spread of the virus does not slow.
Citing Tokyo’s sudden surge in infections, Maiko Tajima, an opposition lawmaker from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said last week: ”Is this just a coincidence?”
Japanese health minister Katsunobu Kato said there is “absolutely no relationship” between the Olympic postponement and the recent increase in cases.
The country has also been accused of not testing enough people. From 18 February to 27 March, 50,000 people were checked for coronavirus – a daily average of 1,270.
South Korea, another Asian country to have reported early cases of coronavirus, had tested about 250,000 people by mid-March.
Japan’s strategy has been to focus on clusters and trace infection routes rather than testing those suspected to be carrying SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19.
Mr Abe insisted that officials had not limited testing in order to reduce Japan’s number of confirmed cases. “I’m aware that some people suspect Japan is hiding the numbers, but I believe that’s not true,” he said. “If there is a cover-up, it will show up in the number of deaths.”
Shigeru Omi, a former World Health Organisation public health expert who is consulting with the Japanese government over the pandemic, defended the policy of selective testing. “Tests are primarily for people who are suspected of having the virus, and should be based on clinical judgment by doctors,” he said.
To date, Japan has reported 1,866 cases of infection and 54 deaths, according to figures compiled by John Hopkins University.