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The Japan Experience: No mass shutdown. No mass isolation. Fewer cases and fatalities. What can we learn?

The big question that is on everyone’s mind is what is going to happen when America ‘gets back to business’ and people have the freedom to move about as they please.  It may take awhile before we get back to the freedom to work and live like we did just 3 months ago, but I am confident we will get there.  In the mean time, what can expect we in the next few weeks?  Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure, but examining how different states and countries have handled the infection may provide some insight into at least the breadth of things that might occur and provide some concepts we could use.s

I believe that looking at places where there have been less restrictions placed on the people AND where people have been less impacted (number of covid 19 cases and fatalities per million people) show us that we can live with open businesses where Covid 19 is no worse than the seasonal flu.  I believe that Japan provides an example.  I know we can’t mimic Japan in many ways, but there are experiences which we could learn from.  It is a story of how a different approach, mind set and cultural behaviors combine to give a final result.

Relatively little has been said about Covid 19 in Japan with its population of 126.7 million.  Most businesses have remained open, yet the Covid 19 infection and fatality rates are much, much lower than in the US (in the range of seasonal flu).  Some estimates are that less than 20% of Japanese businesses have been closed.

As of March 28, 2020, the Covid 19 stats for Japan vs the US are shown below. It is important to note that the US has done far more testing than Japan, but neither country has done much antibody testing, so the true infection rate is not known for either country.  Nonetheless, the statistics for Japan are very good. Covid 19. How many people are actually infected? Santa Clara County

 JapanUS
Population (millions)126.7340
Covid 19 cases136141,031,437
cases/million1083033
Cvoid 19 deaths38558705
deaths/million3177
tests150,6925,838,849
tests/million118917143

The difference in number of deaths/million people is dramatically lower in Japan than the US.

They used a ‘cluster-based approach’ to manage Covid 19..  The principal of this approach is that infection is spread from certain people being more contagious than others.  This concept was used to explain why many passengers on cruise ships are not infected despite having close contact with infected persons.

These more highly contagious people form clusters of infected people which go on to infect others.  Under this cluster based approach, each cluster of infections is identified and tracked to the original infection source(s) and these highly contagious people (and those they infected) are isolated.  This approach requires rapid targeted testing.  The government has a dedicated  department which does this monitoring.

This cluster-based approach is conditioned on clusters of infection get detected at an early stage.  In February 2020, a cluster based approach was used when an outbreak was identified in Hokkaido, Japan..  The source was located, containment measures employed (like closing all travel on/off the island, specific quarantine)  and the outbreak was rapidly contained.

It is noteworthy that South Korea used their version of the cluster based approach to contain their Covid 19 outbreak where they found 1 woman who infected over 1000 others and 60% of the cases in South Korea could be traced back to two churches.  Again, targeted testing and quick identification of clusters of infections were keys to success. South Korea: Covid 19 Containment vs Privacy

The Japan version of social distancing is called avoiding‘the three C’s’ : Closed spaces with poor ventilation; Crowded places and Close Contact places.  This is somewhat opposite to US instructions where we have been told to socially isolate but have closed parks, playgrounds and beaches.  Most, but not all Japanese elementary and high schools have closed, but the closures are only planned for 2-4 weeks depending on the local government.  It is not clear, school closures have (or will) influenced infections of fatalities given the relative low numbers of both.

There are also cultural practices that helped Japan limit the spread of the virus.  Large numbers of Japanese were already in the habit of wearing masks before Covid 19.  Western behaviors such as shaking hands, hugging, kissing and other forms of physical contact are not part of Japanese social behavior.  It is also interesting to note that on the famously crowded public Japanese transit systems, talking is considered to be poor etiquette so again, transmission methods are greatly reduced when no one is speaking and they are wearing masks.

Another cultural consequence of covid 19 isolation policy is suicide.  In Japan, the suicide rate has always been proportional to the unemployment rate.  Suicide rates have already increased in Japan even though the increased unemployment rate is still low compared to the US.  There is a real fear that Japanese suicide rates will increase dramatically if there is a US type of business shutdown.  Given the small number of Covid 19 deaths in Japan, it remains to be seen if the lives saved by sheltering in place are offset by lives lost due to suicide.

It is true  there has been an increase in the number of cases and deaths the past few days, but the numbers would have increase dramatically to reach the numbers of cases (108/million vs 2116/million) and fatalities in the US.  Due to these increases, this week, Prime Minister Abe declared a ‘state of emergency’ granting local governments power to make their own decisions about restrictions,  but there have been few nationwide mandatory shutdowns and only an appeal to ‘stay home’.  The state of emergency has also been set to be only 2 weeks long.  The Prime Minister’s opponents are calling for a larger shutdown but so far Abe has resisted.  Although the number of cases and deaths are increasing, Japan is still doing very well compared with most other countries it’s size.

Recent days have seen reports that some Japanese hospitals in major cities are running short of personal protective equipment. However, this may be a failure of poor planning and procedures rather than a failure of the cluster based approach.  The early success of the cluster based approach may have lulled the government into complacency and they failed to procure equipment and supplies when they could.  They are now playing ‘catch up’ to get supplies when they could have done so earlier.  Japan has far fewer ICU beds/100,000 people than the US and they are concerned about needing more ICU beds than they have, but they are not at that point yet.  The US has demonstrated that large numbers of hospital beds can be erected in short periods of time should they become needed.

The Japan model is based on geographic and social conditions which could be difficult to apply here.   However, I think there are clear experiences we can benefit from.

My summary is:

  1. You can limit the effect of the virus without mass shutting down businesses and sheltering in place as long as you have the ability to immediately identify outbreaks and identify and isolate the source of the cluster.
  2. Infections can be minimized by avoiding the ‘three c’s’: Closed in Spaces, Crowded Spaces and Close contact with other. Their version of social distancing.
  3. Infections can be minimized by reducing physical social greetings, kissing, hugging and handshakes.
  4. Mass transit can still be used if other behavioral changes are made.
  5. If you feel sick, stay away from others
  6. If you feel sick, do not go to work.

Japan is an example where people can live in an environment where Covid 19 is no worse than the seasonal flu (bad as that is) without a shutdown of the economy and staying indoors.  There’s always a chance of an outbreak in a closely packed country of 127 million people, but they have done well so far. Only time will tell if Japan’s approach was successful, but I am hopeful.

I am encouraging on our scientists and politicians to include the Japan experience in their thought and decision making process as they develop and implement plans to reopen America.

 

2 thoughts on “The Japan Experience: No mass shutdown. No mass isolation. Fewer cases and fatalities. What can we learn?

  1. You mentioned crowded spaces. Have the Japanese limited crowds, like sporting events and concerts?

    1. Japan seems to have stopped large public events, but other than the olympics, the shut downs appear to be mainly suggestions and the individual groups are deciding what to cancel and when to resume. In praactical terms, converts, sporting events have been closed, but they all seem poised to open again in May. A big cultural difference is that Japanese people follow suggestions pretty well and ‘laws’ and regulations are not used unless it’s necessaru. A very different societal behavior.

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