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Coronavirus: Was it right to close all schools in Japan?

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Elementary school children disinfect their hands before leaving school in Osaka on February 28, 2020. Japan's prime minister on February 28 defended his call for schools across the country to close over the new coronavirus, as the country confirmed a fifth death linked to the outbreak. Source: AFP/STR/Jiji Press

Japan’s prime minister on Friday defended his call for schools across the country to close over the new coronavirus, an abrupt decision that stunned officials and parents alike.

The move, announced Thursday, came as the country stepped up its response to the outbreak, and the operator of Tokyo’s Disney resorts said its two parks would close for around a fortnight — the latest in a string of closures and cancellations.

Shinzo Abe’s surprise move prompted criticism, with officials saying they had not been consulted and parents questioning how to balance work with the sudden lengthy school holiday.

But the prime minister defended the decision on Friday, saying the government “received expert views that the coming one or two weeks are crucial”.

“We have to prevent emergence of a new cluster of patients among children,” he told parliament.

“We made this decision because we regard it as our political responsibility.”

The government cannot order schools to shut, a power that belongs to local councils, but authorities in many regions said they were neither consulted nor warned about the decision.

‘Really angry’

“This is shocking news,” tweeted Toshihito Kumagai, mayor of the city of Chiba, east of Tokyo.

“How will parents who are medical workers or doing other jobs that support society manage? Society could collapse.”

Pupils of the Ariake-nishi Gakuen elementary school take part in an exercise led by para-athlete Chiaki Takada (not in picture) during an event marking six months till the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo on February 25, 2020. Source: AFP/Charly Triballeau

And Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura tweeted that he was “stunned” by the “sudden decision”, though he expressed some understanding for the move.

“All of Japan has to deal with this infectious disease,” he added.

“It must be Prime Minister Abe’s strong determination and he will take responsibility.”

The move affects primary schools, high schools and junior high, but nurseries and after-school clubs that also cater to children during holidays will stay open, raising questions about the efficacy of the policy.

“I’m really angry about this decision, which won’t do anything to protect children,” one mother of two told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“What are we supposed to do? Leave them alone at home, send them to a daycare… leave them with grandparents? I wish the government had thought this through more.”

Another mother said she was “in shock”.

“My company doesn’t offer teleworking, so I’m going to have to take days off. Financially, it’s very hard.”

Disney closes parks

But others were more understanding, with Miho Matsuno, a mother currently on maternity leave, saying measures to contain the virus were needed.

“I think that we have to do the maximum possible, even if it seems excessive,” she told AFP.

The government’s decision comes as it ramps up its response to the virus, which has so far infected nearly 200 people across the country and been linked to four deaths.

Authorities say the coming two to three weeks will be crucial in determining whether the outbreak can be contained, a major concern particularly for Japan in the run-up to the Olympics, which open in Tokyo in July.

“This decision is a particularly drastic step for the central government to take,” said Tobias Harris of Teneo Consultancy.

It was “not mentioned in the basic policy adopted Tuesday, and appears to go beyond what the government’s own experts were recommending”, he added in a note.

But some experts have recommended closures, with one member of the government panel previously pointing to smaller-scale school closures that he said helped contain a new flu outbreak in 2009.

The government has already asked organisers to consider cancelling or postponing major events, and everything from football matches to concerts has been cancelled in recent days.

On Friday, the operator of Tokyo’s Disneyland and DisneySea said the two parks which attract more than 30 million visitors a year will be closed from Saturday until Mar 15.

“Currently, we plan to reopen on Mar 16. But we’ll decide when to open by looking at the situation and developments. We’ll also consult (official) agencies concerned,” a spokesman told AFP.

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