The Pandemic Policy Dilemma in Japan:
Stopping COVID's Spread or Mitigating its Economic Impact

In January 2021, as COVID-19 infections surged in Japan and the country’s medical infrastructure began to creak under the strain of the increasing load, the government declared a state of emergency. This paper, based on responses to the “Third Questionnaire Surveys on the Effects of the Spread of COVID-19 on Telework-based Work Styles, Lifestyle, and Awareness,” investigates the feelings of the Japanese people on the pandemic and their government’s response to it, at this critical juncture, emphasizing three main points.

The first point is that while feelings of fear towards the virus directly correlate with a desire for the prioritization of measures to limit the spread of infection, factors such as a person’s income and employment status heavily impact their policy preferences. Particularly salient is the impact on beliefs about whether the government should prioritize measures to mitigate economic damage over the aforementioned measures to prevent the spread of infection. Among survey participants, a larger percentage consistently supported prioritizing economic measures over limiting the spread of infection (although as will be shown later, neither option gained even a plurality.) Paradoxically however, even within the face-to-face service industries such as foodservice and hospitality, where the pandemic has dealt a particularly disastrous blow to incomes and livelihoods, there is a desire for stronger measures to halt the spread of infection even if it comes at the cost of the economy. Perhaps, against the backdrop of what employees in face-to-face service sectors perceive to be the limits of mitigatory economic measures, the fear of contracting COVID-19 through face-to-face interactions has become paramount, prompting workers in these industries to be increasingly inclined to support more decisive and thorough measures to combat the spread of the virus.

The second point is that a key piece of achieving a coherent policy to stop the spread of COVID-19 is the government’s provision of clear, consistent and timely information on the pandemic in a way that is empathetic and resonates emotionally with the public. Amongst these efforts, the continued promotion of telework is paramount. The government should push Japanese society to further embrace telework, as it is among the most effective means of keeping the economy moving while strengthening measures to prevent the spread of disease.

The third and final point this paper highlights is the intense toll that the pandemic has taken on the Japanese public’s mental health, with a sizeable increase in rates of suicide and mental illness being seen throughout the country. The situation is particularly severe amidst those under 40, and there is an urgent need to mobilize all resources available, including SNS, to proactively reach out to those in need of mental health care and suicide prevention.

* The survey was conducted in December 2020 by Keio University and the Nippon Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA).

Toshihiro Okubo
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Keio University / Senior Adjunct Fellow, Nippon Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA)