For Suga, the pandemic turned out to be his downfall

Since his first day in power, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had sought to eradicate the coronavirus and revive the country’s battered economy.

But he was never close to achieving either of those goals.

In the end, relentless public frustrations over the country’s protracted vaccine rollout and empty promises to contain the pandemic turned out to be its downfall, experts say.

Since taking over from Shinzo Abe last September, Suga has made the coronavirus his highest priority, a mammoth task that has preoccupied most of his administration. Suga’s initial approval ratings of over 70%, the third highest for an administration, began to drop sharply and were eclipsed by disapproval ratings just two months into his tenure as he took office. the country had more than 2,000 daily COVID-19 infections in November for the first time.

Suga quit the Liberal Democrat leadership race on Friday, believing his chances of winning had become slim, as concerns within the ruling party over the upcoming general election were highlighted, political sources say .

One of the biggest bets Suga placed during his one-year tenure was on a vaccination blitz to stem the pandemic and jump-start the world’s third-largest economy. But Japan’s deployment was delayed from the start and didn’t start until mid-February, more than two months behind the UK and US. In the first months of the campaign, it was moving more slowly than any other OECD country. nations.

In April, Suga announced a bold goal to complete the vaccinations of all seniors wishing to be vaccinated by the end of July. His efforts to fuel the vaccination campaign have sped up the pace of the rollout to a peak of about 1.5 million per day, 2.5 times the usual flu shot rate. By the end of July, 75.5% of people aged 65 and over had received two injections. This prompted Suga to claim in early August that his target had been met, but the share of older people who are fully vaccinated had risen since Friday to 87.1%, according to government data, suggesting vaccinations fell short of the mark. Suga’s goal by the target. Dated.

Earlier this year, Suga had calculated that the vaccine blitz would help contain the pandemic by the end of August.

A restaurateur watches a show featuring Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday in Tokyo. | KYODO

The Tokyo Games, starting with the Olympics in late July, were to serve as a symbol of the nation’s victory over the coronavirus.

But with a vaccination rate still low compared to other industrialized countries, the deployment has not changed the game it had hoped for. Now, although more than 47% of all residents aged 12 and over have been fully immunized, the government has struggled to contain a wave of new cases caused by the delta variant, a highly transmissible strain that quickly overtook other strains. in Japan since its first detection in a domestic patient on April 20. The revelation of contaminated batches of certain Moderna vaccines has also slowed the deployment in recent days.

In early January, Suga declared a state of emergency covering Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures – the second to have been declared since the start of the pandemic and the first under his administration. He vowed to change things within a month, but the state of emergency has been extended twice until the end of March. Similar promises were made and broken as he enacted two more states of emergency, including the current one.

Suga’s image as a leader has also been called into question due to his struggle to communicate effectively at press conferences and other events. When it came to discussing the pandemic, Suga often turned to Shigeru Omi, head of a government expert advisory team, to help explain the situation to the public.

“My impression is that Suga has failed in everything he has done about the coronavirus,” said Tomomichi Akuta, senior economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting in Tokyo. “No matter what new countermeasures he took, the reality was that he was facing a wave of new infections that again and again exceeded expectations.”

A special edition of a newspaper announcing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's intention to resign is distributed in Fukuoka on Friday.  |  KYODO
A special edition of a newspaper announcing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s intention to resign is distributed in Fukuoka on Friday. | KYODO

Another item that drew strong public opposition was the administration’s sudden change in policy in early August, which effectively limited COVID-19-related hospitalizations to severe cases or those at high risk of developing. severe symptoms. The decision was made to ease the burden on frontline healthcare workers.

Although the administration was not forced to adjust the policy until a few days later, deciding that patients with moderate symptoms would also be admitted to the hospital, this did not always work in practice. Doctors in Aichi Prefecture say 90% of its COVID-19 patients are now recovering at home, as some cannot be hospitalized due to an upsurge in new infections.

The Suga administration has always reacted to issues and put “too much of a strain on the health system,” the Aichi Prefecture Federation of Medical Workers’ Unions said in a statement on Friday.

The shortage of beds for COVID patients has become so severe that Masataka Inokuchi, vice president of the Tokyo Medical Association, recently warned that if the current rate of new infections continues, the healthcare system may soon exceed capacity. . Lives will be lost that could otherwise be saved, he added.

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