Lessons from Japan on Battling COVID-19: A CSR Podcast Episode

By Christine Parthemore

The United States has now tragically reached more than 210,000 people killed by COVID-19. These victims are among more than 7 million infected—including the President, many from the White House staff and Congress, and military leadership. Just as so many people across the country are working hard to bring down the transmission and mortality rates, many of us are working to understand what has led to the current situation in which the United States leads the world in total deaths and known cases.  

Understanding the situation will take time, but drawing lessons on what has worked in limiting the pandemic and what has worsened its trajectory must begin now—both in case it can save lives from the current COVID-19 pandemic and for preventing future biological threats from growing to pandemic scales.

One rich source of such lessons can be countries that have done relatively well in limiting the devastation from this pandemic. Japan is one of them. According to tracking by Johns Hopkins University, as of October 6th Japan had just over 1,600 known deaths and fewer than 87,000 known cases, despite the country’s large population and density of some of its major cities.

In recent months, I’ve spoken with friends and experts in Japan to try to learn more. Today, we’re sharing the first of two recorded podcast discussions on Japan’s response to COVID-19.

The discussion features Dr. Tomoya Saito, who is the director of the Department of Health Crisis Management at Japan’s National Institute of Public Health and has deep experience in emergency preparedness and response, health surveillance, and biosecurity; and Ambassador Nobuyasu Abe, who served as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs and as a Commissioner of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, and who we are honored to have as a Senior Advisor at CSR.

They shared several factors involved in Japan’s response that appear to have contributed. Japan focused heavily on early detection. The country also worked early to understand clusters of COVID-19 and how focusing on them could help limit its transmission. We also discussed communications and transparency between the government and the public, including via Japan’s “Avoid the Three C’s” campaign to urge the public to avoid closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact. Straightforward steps like widespread wearing of masks have also been embraced in Japan.

Looking ahead, we also discussed the importance of creating pathogen early warning systems, and the danger of narratives that authoritarian regimes have handled COVID-19 best (evidence for which can be seen in democracies such as Japan being one of the world’s leading countries in containing the pandemic).

News outlets and other experts have provided additional ideas on what has contributed to far lower case and death rates in Japan. The nation has been using its Fugaku supercomputer (rated as the fastest in the world) for modeling how to minimize COVID-19 transmission in public places. Its high-quality, universal healthcare system is surely also an important factor.

As close allies, Japan and the United States have long collaborated to share lessons from crisis response experiences and work together to prepare for emergencies from all types of natural and manmade hazards. CSR will soon share a second conversation with Dr. Saito that explores Japan’s response in deeper detail. We hope these conversations are just the beginning of continuing dialogue between our countries to understand our different experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic in the hope of successfully halting future biological threats as they emerge.

Click play below to listen to our first podcast on lessons from Japan’s responses to COVID-19.

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