Japan and South Korea resent because the rising coronavirus undermines help from leaders
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People shop in a traditional market in Seoul amid the pandonavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
By Rocky Swift and Sangmi Cha
TOKYO / SEOUL (Reuters) – Japan and South Korea struggled with growing coronavirus cases and mounting public frustration on Monday as Japan's prime minister tiptoed over a controversial travel subsidy program while a concerned South Korean president warned of hard curbs.
Japan reported more than 3,000 new cases on Saturday, another record as winter set in. Infections worsened in Tokyo, the north island of Hokkaido and the city of Osaka.
But Japan, which is focused on economic costs, has stayed away from harsh lockdowns. The first wave of infections in the spring was addressed by telling people not to go out and closing or reducing business hours.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said last week that halting a campaign to subsidize domestic tourism had not been considered, given economic considerations.
Critics say encouraging people to travel helped spread infections. Media reported Monday that Suga could curtail the program after polls over the weekend showed his support in dealing with the pandemic had waned.
Across the sea in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in is also facing falling ratings as clusters of new infections fuel criticism of what many see as limp containment.
"Our back is against the wall," said Moon. "This is a crucial moment to dedicate all of our virus control functions and administrative powers to stopping the coronavirus."
South Korea reported a new daily record of 1,030 infections on Sunday, a major concern for a country that has been viewed as a damage control success story for months but is still a fraction of the numbers seen in some European countries and the US that offer vaccines be recorded are rolls.
Few Asian countries expect to receive significant amounts of coronavirus vaccines in the coming weeks as they manage the distribution plans, leave time elsewhere to check for vaccine side effects, or conduct their own late-stage studies.
Instead, they rely on methods that have largely kept infections at bay for months – before the curve tests, strict travel restrictions, strict social distancing and masks.
China, for example, where the virus emerged almost a year ago, has managed to contain new cases with tough, comprehensive measures.
It trapped an area of more than 250,000 people after half a dozen cases near the Russian border in Heilongjiang province were confirmed, the Associated Press reported Monday.
New Zealand, which has been particularly successful in fighting the pandemic, said Monday that it had agreed to open a "travel bubble" with Australia in the first quarter of 2021.
South Korea has warned that coronavirus restrictions could be lifted to the highest level of phase 3, which would essentially mean a first-time lockdown in Asia's fourth largest economy.
In Seoul, schools will close on Tuesday, a step towards the introduction of Phase 3. Last month the government banned year-end parties.
In Japan, hoping to host the postponed Summer Olympics next year, tests have stayed relatively low, recently peaking at around 50,000 in one day. Testing in Tokyo, which has a capacity of more than 60,000, is now around 9,000 a day.
"Whether a country or region is doing enough testing should be judged by its rate of positivity, not the number of tests," said Fumie Sakamoto, infection control manager at St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo.
"The positivity rate for Tokyo is now over 6%, so we should do a little more testing to bring the number down."
South Korea, meanwhile, has aggressively increased the tests on Sunday to about 89,000 people a day, compared to just over 22,000 in early October.