By Tim Hornyak

TOKYO — It seemed like an April Fool’s joke. On April 1, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his government would be distributing two masks to every household in Japan to protect people from coronavirus. The fact that the masks are washable, and can therefore be reused after cleaning, was almost lost in the laughter on social media.

It was one of the latest head-scratchers in a series of questions surrounding Japan, which only declared a state of emergency on April 7. The country has drifted into a bizarre netherworld in which there are still less than 5,000 diagnosed COVID-19 cases, unbelievably few for a land of 126 million with one of the highest proportions of elderly people in the world. Unlike in many Canadian cities, until this week, people in Tokyo have been packing into trains to go to work, hitting bars and restaurants, and frolicking under the cherry blossoms. Though most schools have been closed, it almost felt like the pandemic was but a dream.

Japan had its first coronavirus case in mid-January, but the government failed to take rapid, extreme steps to prevent an epidemic. Even by the beginning of February, it was allowing dozens of flights from China to land every day. Then there were clusters, the biggest being the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Japan was widely criticized for bungling a quarantine that left 12 dead and more than 700 infected out of some 3,700 passengers and crew.

And yet, even after the remainder of them completed quarantine and were allowed to travel freely within Japan, there was no quick explosion in cases. That allowed officials to procrastinate. National attention was on the 2020 Olympics that were set to kick off in Tokyo in July. As daily new infections wavered around 30, Japan’s Olympics minister said cancelling the event was “inconceivable” — until March 24, when Abe and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Games until 2021. Almost on cue, new daily coronavirus diagnoses nearly doubled. They’re now over 300.

Cynics have suggested that the government was cooking the numbers for the Games. But hospitals hadn’t yet begun to overflow with COVID-19 patients. Pundits probed the mystery of why there were so few cases. Was it because Japanese people routinely wear face masks for hay fever? Because they bow instead of shaking hands? Or the fact that in Tokyo, nearly half of all households have only one person?

Japan’s limited testing is a major clue. As of April 6, only about 46,000 people had been tested nationwide. That compares to over 460,000 in South Korea, which has been credited with flattening the curve. The Japanese government focused instead on coronavirus clusters and intensive contact tracing. But in a sign that such measures failed to contain the outbreak, it recently ramped up tests, and now cases are spiking.

Read the rest of the article at National Post.