A rare success story for the beleaguered Aso administration has been its response to the Novel Influenza (A/H1N1). When the news of the virus broke, the authorities quickly set up border checkpoints (it helps that entry points are limited, Japan being an archipelago) and bought time with them while they geared up the domestic response mechanism. When they detected the first domestic human-to-human transmission cases, they quickly wound down border control operations and turned the resource savings over to domestic containment tasks. In the meantime, they did a good job at keeping the public well-informed, giving the latter the public to drop their facemasks almost as quickly as they had put them on*. The trickle of new cases continues (4 June, 15 newly confirmed), but it’s a non-story now—which is probably a problem for Aso. Success in this case is a process leading to normalcy. There are few tangible “kills” to highlight, so the story fades out of the headlines.
Don’t feel too sorry for the Aso administration though; there are big elements of luck to this. For one, there is no doubt that the experience both national and international from the SARS and bird flu outbreaks aided the Japanese authorities enormously in setting up the necessary framework, then forming and executing effective plans to contain the virus. They had in effect dress rehearsals. Moreover, the relative mildness of the symptoms helped maintain public order; there was less urgency, and available resources could be stretched more easily.
This leads me to wonder: How prepared is Japan—any nation, actually—to face an onslaught of a more lethal strain of the virus returning later in the year, which is exactly what happened in 1918 with the Spanish flu? Even if the number of cases will turn out be as limited as they have been in the current outbreak, they will require far more resources for isolation and treatment. They are likely to force more and longer closures of schools and other establishments where they are discovered. The impact will go beyond the pathological, as economic activities world-round take a major hit.
Of course the chances of a lethal mutation are as good as one that works in reverse, making the virus more benign. And nothing guarantees that the virus will come back either. That being said, under the bad-case scenario, a serious flu epidemic will be one of the earliest major political tests, if not the earliest, that the post-election government will face. The danger for a DPJ-led administration is that, coming in to confront large parts of the bureaucracy—the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare with it its national pension system troubles has been a particularly popular target of DPJ criticism—it may have difficulties changing gear so that it can take control of the situation, lest it works the other way around.
* The facemask is part our national costume. We’ll whip them out at the slightest sign of a cold, much the way we unfurl our umbrellas at the slightest hint of rain.